Saint Etienne’s connection with their home soil has always been strong; most of their albums navigate a well-thumbed mental copy of the London A-Z map. But 2005’s Tales From Turnpike House saw the band leave the streets, step inside a high-rise housing block, and write a soundtrack to what they found there. With Words And Music By Saint Etienne, their eighth studio full-length, they continue in the same vein – only now the rooms they peer into, and the scenes they find there, are no longer located in geographical space but within the memories of the band members themselves.
The spoken-word verses of opener “Over The Border” take listeners straight into the childhood home of singer Sarah Cracknell. They anchor the perspective of Words And Music in the 1970s and 1980s and begin the record’s first-hand account of growing up as a music fan in London’s suburbs. We find a teenage Cracknell in her living room, transfixed by music programs on television. “I used Top Of The Pops as my world atlas,” she wistfully narrates. After the show finishes, the track moves to Cracknell’s room, where she spins records by Dexys Midnight Runners and New Order. “I lived in my bedroom,” she explains, “reading Smash Hits and Record Mirror.” Then, as evening looms, “Tonight” returns to these same rooms to hear Cracknell singing into the mirror: “Check my makeup then, check my watch again, I can hardly wait.” All the while behind her voice, the track crackles with the excited anticipation of a young girl preparing to see her favourite band live.
This first perspective is played off against a second that is closer to the present and belongs to an older, wiser Saint Etienne. It introduces the regrets and sombre woodwind of “I Threw It All Away” as well as the gospel-tinged lament for lost time on “25 Years.” But its most important role is to voice the band’s worries about their relevance today. With large sections of Words And Music so historically and geographically situated, so full of local colour and period detail, the band risk sounding outlandish. Many transatlantic listeners won’t detect the longing for London’s city centre that taints the “Woolies” in Redhill where Cracknell buys her first single. Even British audiences may see the “mock-Tudor semis,” and the Morris Minor that drives between them, as relics of a bygone age. The band are conscious of the danger of losing touch with their listeners, and this echoes through the album’s very first question: “when I was married, and when I had kids, would Marc Bolan still be so important?”
But Words And Music’s success doesn’t require that Bolan or any of the record’s other cultural reference points still matter today. This is because the album strives less to faithfully render a particular time or place than to capture an obsessive love that transcends them both. As “Haunted Jukebox” explains, “Ghosts of an ancient song, seem to hide in many places, bringing back so many faces.” The places, faces and sounds that the record recalls are merely the details through which the band relive the early throes of their long affair with pop. As dated as these details might now seem, far from isolating the band from their listeners they actually help to connect them. However many miles and however many years may separate us, Saint Etienne seem to tell listeners, we are both nonetheless music lovers, and that is all that matters. This secret kinship, the idea at the very heart of the album, materializes on “Over The Border” when it recalls how at parties differences were inevitably forgotten because “in the end, the conversation always turned to music.”
If Saint Etienne’s latest album plays like a conversation about music, then it is a remarkably open one. Pop cultural references jump back 30 or 40 years to the period of British life that forms the record’s stomping ground. Other motifs, like the a capella vocals on “Record Doctor” that recall Tony Rivers’s arrangements for Tales From Turnpike House, link the record to the band’s back-catalogue. But as you would expect from a band who have been on the cusp of almost every important new movement in British music, from indie dance to Britpop, Saint Etienne are always keen to explore new sounds. Words And Music sees the band collaborate with Xenomania, the production house behind British pop band Girls Aloud, and both Nick Coler and Tim Powell get production credits. Their influence can be felt like fresh air injected throughout the album: tracks such as “I’ve Got Your Music” and “DJ,” deliver the kind of lithe, streamlined, cutting-edge dance music that is far closer to today’s chart pop than that of 30 years ago.
This is certainly not Saint Etienne’s most experimental record. In fact, tracks like “Answer Song” see the band driving their Morris Minor right down the middle of the road. But just as certainly, the album is no mere trite homage to the sights and sounds that the band members grew up alongside. Doubtless, Saint Etienne love the music of the 1970s and 1980s, but they are seldom guilty of simply aping it. Instead, the band attempt something far grander. Words And Music expertly explores the intoxicated love of music and the sheer joy of being a music fan: feelings so universal that they will never be confined to particular eras.
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