“The Leanover” Goes Viral

A weird part about blogging is that all of my old posts just sit around on the internet and still are occasionally stumbled upon by random people using Google. Most of my posts aren’t very high on search engines, but I’ve had a few that get listed prominently on Google through certain search terms, usually involving more obscure bands where there is less saturation of content written about them. One such post has exploded in popularity recently: a fairly short 2012 piece concerning my obsession with “The Leanover” by Life Without Buildings. The coolest part about the post isn’t anything I wrote, but a comment left by the band’s guitarist, Robert:

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

That remains one of my fondest blogging memories, and even though I would write the post a lot differently today, I’ve always been somewhat proud of providing the “fan’s perspective” on this band for anyone who searches them out of curiosity. And Life Without Buildings are a band that I would guess leads to much more Google searches on average from people who hear them: their songs certainly grab attention, and they make people want to figure out what the deal with the group is. At least that’s how I felt when I first discovered them.

Anyways, it became clear from my boost in traffic that there was a sudden, somewhat significant interest in this song from 2001, and I searched around to see what the cause was. As it turns out, “The Leanover” has become something of a viral sensation on the social media platform Tik Tok, where it has been featured in 55,000 videos so far. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I have never used Tik Tok, and the thought of young people using this alien way of communicating that I do not understand fills me with terror. I created an account so I could see what the posts were about, and it seemed to mostly be people trying on clothes while the song played in the background. I am no closer to understanding why this is entertaining or what anyone is really getting out of this platform, and every second I spent there made me more and more aware of my uncoolness and looming death.

That said, I’m no gatekeeper. If Tik Tok is making people discover “The Leanover,” then keep the videos coming (also, keep finding my blog). And it was a lot of fun to read comments about the song and see the reaction people have to this unique band. As expected, there was plenty of “this is nails on a chalkboard to me” and “this song is so annoying.” But there was also a lot of the feeling I had when I first discovered Life Without Buildings: puzzlement, uncertainty, and a definite curiosity in what this band was and how they made a song like “The Leanover.” Those are the people I assume are finding the blog and I’m hoping my words and Robert’s comments are a decent enough answer.

I went on and on about this song and band back in 2012 (to the point that I was self-conscious about the amount of obsessing I was doing), and my opinions haven’t really changed much. In terms of capturing something unique that feels special and exciting, I don’t know if I rank any song over “The Leanover” or any album over Any Other City. Sue Tompkins’ performance on it is probably my favorite by an artist in any medium: innovative, daring, and endearing, her personality radiates off these songs, which have an enthusiasm and spirit that is beyond infectious. And “The Leanover” is the best showcase of an artist who really invented a new kind of singing and lyricism. There have been talky singers before, and artsy poetry lyricists before, but nobody who did anything quite like this. Tompkins was a painter at the time, and approached words like they were colors and the music like it was her blank canvass, there to be covered with splatters, blotches, and other intentional imperfections. While some will inevitably dismiss her style as pointless babbling, I find there to be an internal logic to her lyricism — there isn’t much literal meaning, but all of the words, the references and repeated phrases add up and cohere into tangible feelings and emotion.

Another crazy thought I’ve had about Life Without Buildings: they’re the only band I’ve heard that I feel would be virtually impossible to cover. In fact, one of the themes in the Tik Tok videos I saw was people trying to lip sync along with her words, and just doing that is too difficult. Nobody else in the world could have Tompkins’ timing or her energy — even if they managed to get all the words right at the right time, so much of the band is based on the specific way Sue’s voice sounds and the way she says the words. I’m never bothered when people say the song is annoying because when an artist does something so different, it only makes sense that it will irritate those who are used to only hearing music made in a certain “normal” style. A more pessimistic view I have sometimes is that Life Without Buildings expose the lack of imagination in so much other music and lyricism, with the conventional rhyming schemes, recycled influences, and basic structures. But really, they mostly prove how hard it is to actually innovate, and how enjoyable it is to hear artists who find something new that actually works.

The uniqueness of Tompkins and the band are why “The Leanover” makes a weird amount of sense as a viral hit, even 20 years after its release. A word that comes up over and over on the Tik Toks is “vibe,” and Tompkins definitely has that in spades. She was maybe ahead of the curve in having a quirky individuality that mirrors some of the short videos, which are mostly people looking to stand out online via their offbeat fashion and music choices. Tik Tok also seems to be an emerging platform for music discovery, and hearing a snippet of a song in this context is probably more effective at getting people interested in a band than the most well-written reviews. I don’t know if the song’s success of platform is necessarily evidence of any of this on its own, but I’m glad that greatness like “The Leanover” is finding an audience, even if it’s through unconventional means.

Single-Song Obsessions: Life Without Buildings — “The Leanover”

Photo by Alan Dimmick
Photo by Alan Dimmick

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.

Favorite 2000s Albums: #1 – Life Without Buildings – “Any Other City”

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.