Life Without Buildings – Juno
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
Glasgow's Life Without Buildings are still, sadly, defunct; they claim on their MySpace page that's not going to change. But news of the soon-to-be-released Live at the Annandale disc got me thinking about them again, as there are still weeks I do little but listen to Any Other City. That got me thinking about this Seconds, which at the time was posted on the Stypod and is near-unfindable, and also one of my favorite pieces of my own. So here, for posterity and if you missed it the first time, is my take on “Juno” without further ado...
Probably every article or review ever written about Life Without Buildings focuses on Sue Tompkins and her vocals, and to be honest so will this one; but I'd like to start with a plea for consideration on behalf of the rest of the band. Will Bradley on drums, Chris Evans on bass, Robert Johnston on guitar—even their names and instruments sound prosaic. But from the opening notes of the band's sole LP Any Other City they burst into life, poised halfway between jangle and angle, post-rocking around the clock. A large degree of the interest, the drive, the life in Life Without Buildings' sound comes from their singer, yes, but if they'd released an instrumental version of the album it would still be good music. Not great music, which is what it is with Tompkins, but good music, which is more than you can say for many bands.
Their instrumental work is in fact the necessary precondition for Tompkins' post-Mark E. Smith verbal fireworks, that network of stutters, repetitions, and obliques that sound like normal communication after distressingly few spins. Bradley's double thumps at just the right moments let her yell with twice the power, Evans and Johnston melding together into one unified melodic engine, filling in the cracks and coloring slightly outside the lines. Over all this Tompkins wades in the stream of her consciousness, and although some themes come through (heartbreak, leaving, escape; “Sorrow,” “New Town,” “Let's Get Out”) the whole story remains walled up in her head, or maybe in her life. It's the kind of tantalizing almost-narrative that makes us invent stories to explain them, but it's hard to tell what's really going on. That kind of opacity can turn into adaptability, though, a kind of emotional malleability that means Life Without Buildings' music can mean more to you than anything more specific could.
“Juno” is a song about 'you,' whoever that is. It is long, it is segmented and multi-part, she is angry at you and she might love you and she wonders if you're real and a million more things. And in the middle, after the gently cryptic opening and before the exhausted end, is the moment. There's a build-up, of course The song has gone through two parts that might be verses and a couple of other, similar parts that might be a chorus, and the music drops down and Tompkins whispers “Don't be fearful / Don't be fearful to me.” As the band surges steadily around her, Tompkins starts fixating on a single phrase: “My lips are sealed.” She starts singing it and then she’s singing/shouting it with heedless abandon, pitched between anger and joy as the bass hums and the drums ratatat and Johnston plays a little like the Byrds if they'd heard Tortoise. It's enthralling, fall-in-love stuff, just like on “New Town” when she starts taunting the listener with the words “Lookin' in your eyes!,” but this time it feels more like being filled with happiness, like you've been sworn to silence about the best secret ever.
And then, between repetitions of the line, it happens—Tompkins shouts out “I can see you!” in a voice both mockingly sing-song and girlishly ecstatic. It's such an innocuous thing to say, the delivery carrying connotations of catching someone during childhood hide-and-seek, and in the middle of the glee of the refrain it's suddenly the most perversely life affirming thing ever. It takes you back to a time and place and mood where things just feel right, where you see that person and you know they're all you need for now. It makes me want to run outside and make snow angels, or run down a hill or play a game of tag. Life Without Buildings aren't twee and neither is “Juno,” but there's a clean-limbed joie de vivre in the middle of it that make the city make more sense, that can't exist apart from the heartache of the end of the album, just as Tompkins would be merely annoying without the almost invisible but crucial support of the music, four parts making one whole.