For some, the scrape of fingernails on a blackboard is an exquisite sensation. Dentists’ drills provide a satisfying tingle. Animals dying in agony make a heavenly choir. And Sue Tompkins, ‘idiosyncratic’ frontwoman of Life Without Buildings, makes a beautiful noise. Whether or not someone has a good voice is one of those subjective arguments that isn’t usually worth even starting. But really, only mad people and immediate family could warm to Tompkins.
That’s John Mulvey of NME, reviewing my favorite album of the last decade, Life Without Buildings’ Any Other City. For the record, I don’t enjoy the sound of dentists’ drills or animals dying in agony, and I’m not related to Sue Tompkins. But maybe I am a bit mad to feel so strongly about an album that has been heard by so few people.
Mulvey’s criticism of Tompkins was a common one when the album was first released in 2001: “The band sounds good, but what’s with the singing?” The thing is, Mulvey isn’t exactly wrong. I totally get why the singing style of Tompkins could be torture on the ears of some listeners, who hear what she’s doing and attribute it to pretentious artsiness or put-on quirkiness. However, for a few listeners like me, what Tompkins does on Any Other City is nothing short of pure magic.
Tompkins instantly stands out to anyone who listens to the band due to her high-pitched voice and talk-singing style, which forsakes traditional music lyricism for repetition, seemingly nonsense phrases, stutters and squeals. Love her or hate her, what’s undeniable is that Tompkins has a completely unique presence with boundless energy, enthusiasm, and charisma, and along with her lyrics it makes her a strangely endearing figure. There’s never been a singer quite like Tompkins, or an album quite like Any Other City.
On the surface, Tompkins’ lyrics would seem to be free-form and improvised, random words that she just threw together to go with music. In fact, the opposite is true: according to other band members, the lyrics were labored over endlessly, and realizing that there’s a method to all of the craziness happening is crucial to understanding the genius of the band. Her lyrics strike a perfect chord between being abstract and accessible: they’re just connected enough for a listener to gather some sort of meaning, but are also impossible to fully pin down. And even the meaning you figure out can change depending on what mood you’re in when you listen.
The band behind Tompkins is also a big part of Any Other City‘s success, as they play tight, melodic instrumentals that are the perfect match for her unpredictable style. The band plays a lot of different tempos over the album (and many of the songs have abrupt tempo shifts), but they’re able to keep a steady backdrop to go along with the organized chaos that Sue provides. An incredible gift Tompkins had was an ability to always be at the right place with her non-stop lyrics, which allows them to never sound disjointed or out of sync.
People talk a lot about desert island albums, ones that you could picture yourself replaying over and over for the rest of your life. Any Other City is a desert island album full of desert island songs. “The Leanover” is one of those, with a laid-back atmosphere created by Robert Johnston’s melodic guitar that is fronted by one of Tompkins’ most jittery vocal deliveries. She cycles through phrases endlessly over the song’s five minute length, tossing in pop culture references and exclamations. This song is basically why I love the band so much: I feel like I can listen to it forever, never get sick of it, and yet still never be entirely sure what it means. It isn’t frustrating, but rather perfectly ambiguous and interpretive in the way that I feel only applies to truly great art.
Most of the songs on Any Other City have that same feeling and can be endlessly dissected or quoted but never fully understood. “PS Exclusive” is an up-tempo, danceable number with plenty of Sue repetitions (“the right stuff!”). “Juno” is the album’s most accessible song, as the ringing guitars and a more toned-down performance from Tompkins make it more of a traditional pop song (although still one with many tempo changes). The inherent likability of Tompkins and her off-the-wall sincerity goes a long way in making the lyrics feel genuine and poignant instead of annoying and art-school.
Life Without Buildings have maintained an aura of mystery that is increasingly rare these days. The band broke up shortly after Any Other City was released, as Tompkins wanted to pursue her art. The live album Live at the Annandale Hotel surfaced in 2007, and its faithful renditions of the songs on Any Other City provide a perfect footnote to the band’s brief career. The live album also hints at why the band broke up, as Tompkins is charmingly uncomfortable in the spotlight (the album is worth listening to for her awkward stage banter alone).
Any Other City was briefly hyped when it was initially released, but now is largely ignored and difficult to find (there’s currently one used copy on amazon.com available for 40 dollars). In a decade that would later see the boom in file sharing, music websites, and blogs, that makes it part of a dying breed of albums: the buried treasure that is loved by a small cult of people while largely being unknown to everyone else. Its obscurity is partially by design, as Tompkins remains an acquired taste that could never be embraced by most listeners. However, those mad people that appreciate her unique charms will find Any Other City to be an entirely singular album, with a style and beauty that is found nowhere else.