The nostalgia that drenches the internet on a daily basis usually arrives in predictable packages — endless classic TV shows being unsuccessfully rebooted; childhood favorites getting thrust back in your face; money-grabbing reunion tours from past greats becoming a yearly staple; constantly being asked if you feel old yet. Every so often, though, the phenomenon rears its head in strange and unexpected ways.
When Glasgow quartet Life Without Buildings broke up in 2002 — a year after dropping their modestly-received sole LP Any Other City, released 20 years ago today — they left behind a small cult following and little else. In the two decades since, the album has been passed around like a secret, gaining some extra traction from a 2014 vinyl reissue on Rough Trade and an unexplained play of a track on Frank Ocean’s Beats 1 radio show blonded in 2018, but largely failing to escape its destiny as a cult gem. The band’s eternal status as underdogs can be distilled down to a night exactly 20 years ago in February 2001, when they were bumped at the last minute from headliner to support act at a London show, swapping places with a band called the Strokes, who were playing their first ever gig in the city.
Knowledge of the album did trickle down to one new Gen Z star, though. At the end of 2020, beabadoobee sparked the most surprising viral trend in a long time when she shared a video of her lip-syncing to the intro of band’s debut single and biggest “hit,” “The Leanover.” In the two months since, the band’s Spotify monthly listeners have increased tenfold, and the lip-sync has been recreated nearly 100,000 times on TikTok.
what a song
While the nostalgia cycle often feels like an endless rehashing of household staples, Life Without Buildings’ reemergence can probably only even be categorized as nostalgia-worthy to those deeply entrenched in the UK’s art-rock circles in the early 2000s, and a few plugged-in listeners beyond it. For everyone else, it’s an unexpected introduction to a lost classic. Can a band or an album even have a renaissance if it never really had its true moment in the first place?
While this newfound love and attention for the band seemed ripe for outdated and unnecessary gatekeeping from those internet-averse 40-somethings who were actually in the right circles in the first years of the new millennium, luckily the band themselves seem giddy with excitement at the resurgence. “I was immediately struck by the fact it was predominantly young women getting into it and sharing their videos,” vocalist Sue Tompkins told Paste while reflecting on the new viral fame. “I was really moved by that and mostly how you could see them just purely expressing themselves, and hopefully feeling loads of freedom! That makes me feel really excited that they feel they can do that and be seen so easily and accessibly.”
“No details, but I’m gonna persuade you!” Tompkins exclaims on Any Other City‘s opening line, a statement that’s proved irresistibly true over the record. Though the words she spits out with vigor can be unintelligible at times, the feeling always remains, and she can win you over with pure passion. There’s a reason why the following opening lyrics from “The Leanover” are connecting with hundreds of thousands of teens, their irresistible rhythm and energy enticing enough to keep you hooked despite the absence of almost any literal meaning. She sings:
If I lose you
If I lose you
If I lose you
If I lose you
In the huh, the huh, the huh, mmm
If I, if I, if I, if I, if I
G G G, so G G G, you you you
A painter and spoken word poet by trade, Tompkins was somewhat reluctantly recruited to front Life Without Buildings by a trio of coursemates at the Glasgow School of Art, and this naivety brings wonderful and unusual textures to the front of Any Other City. By ignoring (or maybe not even being truly aware of?) any traditional structures around tone or cadence — ideas of how a frontperson should express themselves — Tompkins’ presence at the front of the band tears apart the formulaic structure of a rock band, before piecing it back together in rarely seen and exhilarating ways.
In “The Leanover,” she crams far more syllables into a single line than most would dare, but then leaves tantalizing space all across closer “Sorrow,” leaving you hanging on every next word as it takes ten slow seconds to arrive. “You’re beautiful but slip away” she repeats over and over on the latter song, each time with a slightly different inflection, allowing the devastating line to sink in until it means everything and nothing at once. The track is delivered like a difficult phone conversation with a loved one, trying to work out your feelings in real time (“Come closer to the phone,” she pleads halfway through the track, making sure the person at the other end knows she really means it). She tries to move on to her next point before getting dragged back into the repeated phrase, like she hasn’t quite hammered it home yet and needs to return with another final gut punch.
While not serving as an oft-touted influence for many, the ethos and energy of Life Without Buildings finds its way into the DNA of a number of upcoming UK guitar bands. The obvious 2020s example is recent Band To Watch act Dry Cleaning, who, like Life Without Buildings, are fronted by an unlikely and reluctant presence in Florence Shaw, who spins her words into new shapes in a style immediately reminiscent of Tompkins. Both bands are anchored by playful but sturdy art-rock instrumentation that swells and retreats at the right time but always gives ample space for their off-the-wall vocalists to run riot.
Parts of Every Bad, the stunning 2020 album from Brighton’s Porridge Radio, can also be traced back to Any Other City. When Tompkins repeats the line “I’m lookin’ in your eyes” ad infinitum on the propulsive “New Town,” I think of Every Bad opener “Born Confused,” where Dana Margolin hammers the closing refrain — “Thank you for leaving me, thank you for making me happy” — into the ground, its repetition making the statement swirl around until it’s almost psychedelic, like when you look at a word for so long that it stops meaning anything, before eventually coming back round to the core of the message. “It feels really good to just repeat shit over and over again until it becomes something bigger,” Margolin told us last year, and it’s an ethos that’s at the heart of Any Other City, too.
The music behind Tompkins feels impressively fresh and sharp — Robert Johnston’s intricate guitar lines are as much Johnny Marr as they are midwest emo, while the bass and drums interlock tightly when needed, but also let their hair down in the album’s looser moments. It’s a framework that allows Tompkins’ voice to head in whichever direction it pleases. Sometimes, when the band surges and swells behind her, she raises her voice with them; at others, she feels on a completely different wavelength, rising into a rage as the band falls away. The disconnect is never less than thrilling.
Breaking up due to Tompkins’ desire to focus on her visual art, guitarist Robert Johnston said a decade after Any Other City was released that the band never intended to make music a career, and struggled with pressures that were being put onto something that started “for a laugh.” While most bands would also try to disown any form of careerism when starting out, while deep down wanting to be a big band more than anything, it feels genuinely true here, somewhat proven by their sheepish confusion at the new virality of their two decades old single, and wariness at any talk of a reunion.
While Any Other City feels like a potent, important and deeply profound record, it’s also just damn fun, as is watching thousands of TikTokers trying desperately to keep up with Tompkins’ irresistible, elastic delivery of the disjointed syllables that open “The Leanover”. It means that — if they’re as true to their word as they seem — this will be one reunion tour that we never get, and the finality is refreshing in an era of oversaturation. Only Any Other City and a 2007 live album of the record performed in full from a show in Sydney exist in the world to pore over.
“Long live TikTok and music and letting go and freeeeedom!!” Tompkins reflected of the new viral fame last month, her words bouncing and spitting off the page just like how every lyric on Any Other City comes flying at you out of the speakers, her untamable energy still going strong as it reaches a whole new generation.