[Our series of classic album revisits continues. This piece was originally written for publication in 2013, which is worth noting for a few reasons. Firstly, Helen urges us to point out that she has not revisited it - “it is what it is” - hinting that she might write very differently now, but we present it unedited because 'what it is' captures the spirit of this series; secondly, it was written before and stands alone from two album reissues, the band's surprise TikTok afterlife and subsequent reappraisals; lastly, 2013 was the year that the much-missed Shrag played their last gig.]
Life Without Buildings – Any Other City (2001)
by Helen King
10pm on Halloween 2011, and I’m careening about in Hamilton – a greyish suburban South Lanarkshire town some 20 miles or so outside of Glasgow – dressed as a Sexy Cat. I’m with Steph and Bob, two members of my band (attired, respectively, as ‘Steph-an Deadest’ and ‘some kind of Twilight vampire put through a Sainsbury’s filter,’ apparently). We’re at Gargleblast Recording Studios for their annual 31st October party: we had finally finished recording an album there earlier that day, and are catching the train home the next. I spend the first hours of the party optimistically twitching my whiskers towards the door, on the idiot’s lookout for a glimpse of a couple of people I do not know and have never met.
Gargleblast’s Andy Miller, who produced my band’s album, also produced Any Other City, the first and only studio album by Glasgow band, Life Without Buildings. And this is no coincidence: it was, predominantly, the (not so) simple fact of Any Other City which led to Shrag seeking Andy Miller out when we were thinking about finding someone to produce what I now believe we instinctively knew would be our last album.
I didn’t – and still don’t – know all that much about production on records; I certainly had no applicable knowledge of the mechanics of it, for sure. And, when I found myself in the weird and unexpected position of having to think about the production of my own band’s music, this insufficiency of mine bothered me. But not as much as the fact that I always felt I lacked the language – the technical language – which would enable me to articulate what it was I wanted our music to sound like. Because, I definitely knew that. I knew what I wanted our music to sound like. I knew what I liked music to sound like.
And I knew that I liked the way Life Without Buildings’ Any Other City sounded.
So we chased Andy Miller down, not really knowing what were doing, but knowing we wanted to find out what working with a producer did to us, and knowing that here was a guy who had helped make one of the most unshakeably brilliant records we’ve ever had the temerity to feel a real affinity with. It made a kind of sense to us. So we asked, and he said yes.
As we packed up our instruments and sense of finality on that Halloween afternoon, Andy – knowing of our fandom – mentioned that one or two of Life Without Buildings may put in an appearance at the party that night. Edifying images of us and them bonding effervescently over shared experiences, infatuations, and blood-red cocktails besieged my sycophantic, hubristic mind, and, later that night, I bullied Steph and Bob into a prompt yet casual-seeming arrival at the Gargleblast party.
I remember when I heard Any Other City for the first time.
It was 2001, and I was back at my mother’s house, because our (not so sexy) cat had just had one of his back legs amputated due to some horrible growth, and my mother, squeamish about animals in general, did not want to take care of what transpired to be a deeply – if temporarily – disconcerted cat. We had to keep him trapped in one room (we chose my old bedroom), indignity incarnate in his Elizabethan collar, until he learned to ambulate as a tripod. He was a neurotic feline, and could only be prevented from attempting – in a crushingly ineffective manner – to flee the room in mortal terror if I stayed in the room with him all night, barricading the door and making soothing noises.
Against this banally horrific backdrop, hand on the cat’s petrified flank, I played a copy of Any Other City for the first time. I remember forgetting about the traumatised cat. I remember thinking that listening to that album was like encountering a complete stranger, who I recognised.
Made by four art-school friends for a release in early 2001, Any Other City is a wildly strange, beautifully unsettling record, which galvanises me in potent ways to this day. Comprised of drummer Will Bradley, bassist Chris Evans, guitarist Robert Johnston, and vocalist Sue Tompkins (unsurprisingly, all now artists and writers of one kind or another), Life Without Buildings, over the course of their career, unintentionally hurtled into a brilliantly understated rendition of the ultimate romantic pop archetype, falling elegantly on the coveted side of the burn out/fade away dichotomy. Lasting approximately only three years, they unburdened themselves of this impressive, inimitable shock of an album, excited the fuck out of a criminally small but critically astute group of people, and then disbanded in what read like a protracted spasm of quiet disillusion a year or so later.
Any Other City opens with ‘PS Exclusive’, a track which musically and lyrically feels almost in media res; entirely appropriately for this counter-intuitively cohesive album. Johnston’s guitar work tumbles into view with a magnetic rush, as declarative in its exuberant melodicism as Tompkins’ opening ‘No details, but I’m gonna persuade you!’ As its title suggests, ‘PS Exclusive’ brims with images of exchanged, hand-scrawled letters, the coded understandings which spring up and reify inside the ever-evolving minutiae of each unique relationship. The language of possession and possessiveness (exclusivity?) becomes the latent motif of the fragmentary narrative which emerges: the withholding and disclosing of secrets (‘No name, no name/I’m not for you this time, for me’), fleeting images of shared summers and elopements (‘sugar ice and the right stuff’/‘in the red villa with you’), and brief registers – ‘winter sun’– of their passing.
Dig even a foot deeper into Any Other City and you realise this weirdly potent, painterly lyrical style is here to stay. ‘Let’s Get Out’ asserts, catastrophically, that ‘I’m a visitor here’; we sense that that ‘here’ is some unchartered emotional territory, the likes of which we have all roved but never really known.
And then ‘Juno’, suffused with hints of dark betrayals and redactions: ‘For you, he wrote something else’. Clotted yet economical words are lilted out over sparkling, intricately woven guitar in a way which immediately and indelibly etches the emotional core of the song on the mind; it is no small achievement. It’s also not all coded and ciphered. There are gestures outwards, which fix the record within the kind of broad temporal co-ordinates we need to locate ourselves emotionally: despite the wrong pronoun, I can’t help but think of the Go-Gos when in ‘Juno’ Tompkins insists over and over that ‘my lips are sealed’. That song was written in 1981. I like to think that there are (as there are for me) some songs, which, for Life Without Buildings, shout defiantly from the map despite the elapse of two confusing decades.
If I’m wrong and it’s nothing to do with the Go-Gos, then I insist that the fourth (brilliant) track on Any Other City is Life Without Buildings in as close to cultural butterfly mode as we will ever find them. Giving the lie to the perceived hermitical nature of this band, ‘The Leanover’ is littered with referential content, albeit sometimes covert and embedded. Either the line “I like you mostly late at night” is lifted directly from Robert Wyatt’s ‘Sea Song’, on that subtly harrowing record of his, Rock Bottom, or I can only credit both lyricists for arriving at one of the most pitch-perfect evocations of hopelessly but gloriously doomed affections I have yet encountered. Similarly, the expulsive “MBV/MBV/MBV/MBV” refrain, which appears early, only to morph over the course of the track into something far less decipherable, seems an obvious signpost. And again, later we visit ‘Virginia Plain’, though by this point in the song we are rendered so giddy and white-knuckled by how tenuously anchored this vocal performance seems to be, that – Roxy Music be damned – we only have space to register how emphatically that tenuousness is the very wellspring of its power.
Throughout this remarkable song, the rhythm section undulates so wrenchingly that I can almost see the hesitant peaks and their darkly assured valleys which populate the song like warring, inverted shadows. The cascading guitar phraseology, alternately lilting and churning, rears its head throughout this song, and crushes me every time. This is something that guitar will do to me several times across Any Other City; a testament to a peculiarly intuitive kind of musicianship which knows both its own (considerable) capacity, and its testing points, its contours; places it will hover around, defiantly, with powerful results. Some of it – in ‘Envoys’, in ‘Let’s Get Out’ – sends me back to my days of listening to early (for want of a better phrase) ‘post-rock’ stuff; Slint’s Spiderland, a lot of Trans-Am, or even parts of Pram’s The Stars Are So Big, The Earth Is So Small… Stay As You Are. Sends me back, but not for an overnight stay: the joy of Life Without Buildings lies in their obtuse (but implicitly obtuse) refusal to insert themselves into any of the musical archives they so assuredly, effortlessly plunder. Perhaps because they sound like the natural distillation of everything that had ever been good about pop music until 2001, and, simultaneously, completely, utterly tangential to it, Life Without Buildings achieve with Any Other City that most elusive of documents: an album relentlessly more than the sum of its parts, extant both without and within the buildings which were built before and built after it.
For me, one of the standout tracks on the album (and, with ‘The Leanover’, half of the band’s debut single on Tugboat), is the unapologetically evocative ‘New Town’. On 1979’s Cut, The Slits wrote a song called ‘Newtown’, about sadness and addiction on the streets of (what they perceived as) the soullessly constructed ‘new towns’ birthed by the post-WWII social housing act of the same name. Over the course of three decades, more than 20 new towns were created: places like Stevenage, Newport Pagnell, Hemel Hempstead, and Milton Keynes. Whilst in some ways reaching its heyday in the late 1970s, the project had also, by this point, become associated with the privations of economic depression, social inequality, and suburban alienation. For The Slits, the grid-system of Milton Keynes seemed to offer up a perfect analogy for the sterility, rigidity, and inhumanity of the blighted lives this ‘new town’ sustained. I still don’t know if the LWB is a nod to The Slits song; I suspect not (I find it fascinating, however, that Glasgow is the ultimate ‘grid city’; the logical, unsentimental organisation of its streets and thoroughfares becoming the model upon which New York City, with its blocks and its corners and its junctions, was based). However, I do detect a consonant tone in the ‘new towns’ of The Slits and LWB. The ineffably flooring musical build-up which floods the beginning of the latter’s version, coupled with the sudden intrusion of Tompkins’ breathless, bell-like intonation of ‘if I lose you/if I lose you/if I lose you/if I lose you/if I lose you in the street…‘ imbues the whole track with a sense of melancholy and loss perfectly in accord with the worst Milton Keynes has to offer. But, here, equivocal feelings breed hope as well as despair; it’s in their nature: ‘I forgot/rhythm and knowledge regenerate there’.
This skittish, elliptical vocal style of Tompkins’ achieves a perfect tension with the warm but crystalline precision of the music. But this is no improvised, amorphous torrent of words; sure, there are patches of ‘freestyling’ here (indeed, we hear Tompkins’ jubilant heralding of the fact midway through ‘The Leanover’), but it’s of such a tightly felt, echolalic quality that it serves to bind rather than disperse the otherwise richly, precisely observed (and I suspect prepared) lyrical content. One has only to listen to Tompkin’s near syllable-perfect rendition of these songs on LWB’s Live at the Annandale Hotel – beautifully recorded at a 2002 show in Sydney but only released in 2007, years after the band’s split – to know that these are words that are meant to be there, and invested with great care. Tompkins enacts a kind of ecstatic verbal and aural pirouette, somehow managing to remain as alert to the semantic as to the phonetic qualities of her vocalisations. It reminds me of The Slits, it reminds me of Clare Grogan and Altered Images, it reminds me of ESG, Kleenex/LiLiput, and even of Kate Bush, all of whom were, at various points in their careers, similarly and emphatically cognisant of both the lexical and the sonic content of their words. And knew intuitively how to make use of them.
More than anything, though, it reminds me of the textual jouissance of Gertrude Stein’s early writings, before she fell out of love with the noun, and was still going about investing her strange words and worlds with as much meaning as possible, rather than emptying them out. Stein – whilst being dubbed ‘insane’ and unhinged because of her extreme stylistic mannerisms – understood and indeed was obsessed by the texture of words, and the way in which that texture could be mined for unknown depths of meaning. Like Stein, Tompkins is obviously a complete logophile, conversely excavating the utter otherness of language for its redemptive, rejuvenating capacities.
She knows that the staging of the confusion and chaos which, if we think honestly, abrasively about it, defines everyday experience, is a powerful thing. ‘Eyes like lotus leaves, no, not even like’ she stutteringly repeats in description of some unidentified subject on the elegiac album-closer ‘Sorrow’; evoking that hesitancy which becomes its own eloquence, as we search for images that will shift us closer to those things that are ineffable. Sue Tompkins likes eyes: there are a few on this album, here, and in ‘New Town’, and in the repeated references to looking and seeing which preoccupy and permeate many of the songs. She likes eyes, but she knows the weirdness of them, especially when they are set like two fringed sea-creatures (no, not even like) in the face of someone you love, or even of your own when you fix them in the mirror.
Even more like Stein, Tompkins knows and is infatuated with the potency and the possibilities of repetition; not in the reductive, dulling sense of carbon and Xerox, but rather the points at which it becomes a fecundating device, unfurling new strangenesses of meaning and nuance from the seeds of its base materials. In ‘Envoys’, one of the most ‘lyrically’ (the word never feels appropriate – or adequate – when describing Tompkins’ style) abstruse of Any Other City’s 10 songs, Tompkin’s repetition becomes the driving force, words – words which via that repetition become not words at all, but only sounds, syllables (‘inter/inter/inter or whiter/inter or else’) – tumbling from her, over and over again, and breaking apart as they fall.
I love the way this band did what they did in a way which makes you feel they had no full awareness of just how odd and important it was. I love the way Tompkins’ voice and intonation stretch and flex around the contours of the repeated phrase: “Do we need order?” on ‘Philip’. I love the outrageous beauty of the interplay between bass and guitar at the beginning of ‘New Town’; it’s like seeing or feeling something almost too intimate, and it makes the song pace like a panther. I love the way Life Without Buildings unintentionally and effortlessly pulled off that most trite and wonderful coup in terms of pop mythology – making a devastating first and only album, and then disappearing; I love the intuition and the impulsiveness of that. I love the soul and the humour which irrigates Any Other City. I love the fact that upon its release, Tompkin’s voice got ripped into in a handful of dismally-written reviews by the kind of unimaginative, chronically bored and boring journalists you could only wish to alienate: sensing in the verbal exuberance and daring of this record an unusual and challenging strength, they couldn’t wait to shout, in a weasel-y way, about how it was its main weakness. I love how the band allow themselves to sound both fragile as fuck, and fucking brash, assured, insulated. I love ‘difficult people slip away/feeling that way about difficult people’. I love the way some things get made by people you have never met, and they scaffold your life somehow; though you can never quite articulate why.
They never turned up at the party.