Saint Etienne – Words and Music album review



Saint Etienne have been around for so long now that you know exactly what you’re getting with each long playing release. The genres may shift slightly due to whatever is contemporary at the time but the mood and sentiment always the same, like The Fall but infinitely more glamorous.

Five years since their last effort, 2007’s warm and understated 'Tales from Turnpike House', a fusion of pastoral pop spiced and their much noted love of early 70's Beach Boys Carl Wilson led harmonies, they’ve stopped chasing the current sounds of now and made their most conventional album to date.

One thing that hangs heavy throughout much of the lyrical content aside from the gravitational pull of pop music through Smash hits and 7” singles is the sense that they’re not immortal after all. Where nothing could stop them previously, now they can’t get beyond staying up later than nine. Sarah Cracknell spends much of the album reminiscing about the hopes and dreams of youth, the opening track ‘Over the border’ has her remembering how as a child she went to Peter Gabriel's house so she could catch a glimpse of him and bought records from ‘Woollies’’ while wondering if Marc Bolan would mean as much to her when she was older with kids. These are references very specific to a certain age, but wrapped up in the universal sound of pop with an occasional tweak of auto-tune, used in a very Saint Etienne post-modern kinda way.

For anyone else, this would be dismissed as cheese but tracks such as ‘I got your music’, a knowing nod to Stock Aitken and Waterman’s one moment of musical integrity, is them at their gloriously fizziest whilst the breathy vocal processing on ‘The last days of disco’ is the best Kylie song she hasn’t sung yet. ‘Tonight’ has Cracknell excitedly applying make-up and getting ready to paint the town red on the way to a gig by her favourite band, readying to go wild when the lights go down and wondering “Maybe they'll open with an album track, or a top five hit no turning back”, the sentiment is recognisable and highly admirable but the reality is that she’s probably more excited at the 3 for 2 offers down the organic section of Budgens these days, Crouch End branch.

Their dancing days seemed numbered on their previous album as they pondered relocation to the countryside with David Essex of all people but on ‘DJ’, they’ve rejected the good life and despite the recognition of middle age, they’re heading back to the dry ice and lasers and bizarrely “making out to the DJ”.

For all this pop posturing, it’s ‘When I was 17”, the least pop track which is the highlight here. As bitter sweet as their finest tracks such as ‘Like a Motorway’, it jangles like an indie band half their age with a sorrowful key change from verse to chorus which is an heartbreaker and shows that even two decades down the line, they can still do pop better than most without having to resort to a ‘featuring Rihanna’ co-listing.


Chris Todd