One of the biggest things I’m always looking for is art that actually stays with you after you read it, look at it, or listen to it. As an English major, my favorite stories and poems that I read were always the rare gems that had some degree of ambiguity that made me keep thinking about them over and over, even days after I studied them. In music, that feeling is even more rare: most bands write lyrics that are either too on-the-nose with their intent or are completely nonsensical and stupid.
I’ve already written too much about how I’m obsessed with Life Without Buildings. I imagine when I share the link to this post on Facebook, most people will glance over it and say “oh my god he’s seriously going on about that stupid Life Without Buildings band again.” But a huge part of why I’m totally fixated with this band is that they pulled off the whole ambiguous, thought-provoking art thing better than any band I’ve heard, and they were able to do it in with a style that was accessible and endearing. And it’s worth singling out “The Leanover” because, even on the basically perfect Any Other City album, it’s a song that rises above the rest, perfecting the band’s one-of-a-kind aesthetic and achieving a sort of rarefied air that makes you wonder how such a song could even be thought of and conceived by humans.
Any discussion about Life Without Buildings has to begin with their singer, Sue Tompkins. Her sound-artist, high-pitched talk-singing style is on every song of theirs, but “The Leanover” is her most virtuosic performance. Starting the song a capella, she whispers “If I lose ya” repeatedly (many pointed out that during the Iraq war that this sounded like “In Fallujah” due to her accent), and for the next five-and-a-half minutes she manically cycles through various phrases, creating a sound collage of personal memories, pop culture references (“M-B-V!”), and seemingly randomly shouted lines and observations.
If you just look at the lyrics of “The Leanover” independent of the music, you’ll probably be like “what the hell is this?” (Listening to the song, I suppose you might think the same thing.) But when combined with Robert Johnston’s beautiful guitar-work and the strong rhythm section, somehow it all seems to come together — to an extent. The actual “meaning” of the song remains largely impenetrable, but in a way where I think I can still figure it out if I listen one more time. At least that was my mindset early on after I discovered the song, but then I realized that knowing exactly what it meant would ruin the charms that make it so endlessly replayable to begin with.
The lyrics understandably get singled out by writers, but the extra facet of this song’s greatness is simply in its delivery. In the post-Radiohead era, I sometimes feel like the “hip” thing to be in indie these days is dour and gloomy, singing in an oppressively sad tone about some serious topic or another. I’m already a boring person — I don’t need to compound that by listening to boring music. Contrast that to “The Leanover”, which is pure joy. Even without really understanding the lyrics, Tompkins’ sheer exuberance and enthusiasm make the song worth listening to. As the song’s sound grows, especially in the final couple of minutes, I dare you not to smile. The fact that those qualities come along with such a thought-provoking and interesting lyrical style is just icing on the cake.
A lot of the best qualities of “The Leanover” come out even more on the live version, which appears on the band’s Live at the Annandale Hotel album. Hearing Tompkins perform this song in a live setting is incredible, as she somehow has enough breath to get through all of its words and is able to stay on just the right beat. The studio version has a spontaneous sort of sound to begin with, which the live performance accentuates. It’s obviously worth seeking out if you’re half as into this band as I am.
As of right now, “The Leanover” is probably my favorite song. “Obsession” doesn’t really go far enough — I want to live inside of this song. If I was stranded on a desert island with just “The Leanover”, I could probably be okay, because it’s one of the few songs I listen to that makes my day better whenever I hear it.
6 thoughts on “Single-Song Obsessions: Life Without Buildings — “The Leanover””
Just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed reading this. For my money, you nailed most of what makes this my favourite of our songs; the aspect of joy that Sue always conveyed was something that we talked about a lot, and something that we felt distinguished us.
The Leanover was the first thing we wrote which we knew was good, and the first thing that successfully grafted Sue’s writing to the music; it was when we realised she had killer timing as well as everything else. I remember when we’d put down the backing track for the home demo, then Sue came round with a stack of paper and did what became The Leanover pretty much first-take, on an office chair in my bedroom, with the rest of us sitting on the bed in awe.
Good luck with everything!
Robert, Lwb guitar
Wow, thanks so much for the kind words, and the story — it means a lot to me that the people who actually made the music like stuff I wrote about it. I really think everything the band did was fantastic, and I could probably write a post like this for every song. Maybe I will if I run out of ideas.
I hope all the band members are doing well!
This song showed up in my Spotify “Discover Weekly” playlist last Monday, and I too fell for it hard–as well as for the rest of the band’s work. I found your post searching for more information on the band, and just wanted to leave a note to express my appreciation for it.
“I realized that knowing exactly what it meant would ruin the charms that make it so endlessly replayable to begin with.” After trying to do a bit of in-depth interpretation myself, I realized that you’re exactly right. To me the song sounds like it’s all about being young and alive in an atmosphere charged with art and music. To (mis)quote Keats, that’s all I know and all I need to know.
Hi there! I’m the person who transcribed those lyrics (with the help of Will from the band who sent corrections) and put them up on a web page, nearly 20 years ago. From there, the lyrics have drifted randomly around the Internet, which I like. I was OBSESSED with the album. It is still as good as it was then. Thanks for writing this.
That’s cool, thanks for your work with the transcription. I’m actually getting re-obsessed with the album again after a couple years — it’s just phenomenal. The fact that people find this appreciation of it is one of the things I’m most proud of on here.
This is my favorite song of all time too. Always imagine Sue got really drunk and had this breakdown on the street. All the gibberish in her lyrics are due to the intoxication and reflecting her daily thoughts and experiences. This kind of craziness attracts me ever since the first time I heard the song. I figured out the reason why I am obsessed with it might because I am such a boring rule-follower and I admired her for losing herself completely for once.