Saint Etienne - Words and Music by Saint Etienne
released 21 May 2012 on Commercial Marketing
A recent YouGov study has found that the most popular way for the public to discover new music is through the radio, that the place that people are most likely to look for album reviews is in a newspaper, and that going out and buying an album is still more popular than listening to a free stream. Despite living in the digital age, it appears the influx of technology hasn’t overtaken us just yet and, perhaps, many of us are simply traditionalists at heart.
In some ways, it’s easy to see why. For example, watching an iTunes progress bar inch its way to completion can never replicate the anticipation of waiting for a trip to the local store and cherishing your wares on the bus home, eager to hear the treasure within. Saint Etienne understand this love affair people have with music and over the course of the past two decades, have shown themselves to be fans and scholars of pop, as well as a fantastic group.
But nowhere has this infatuation with music been better captured than on Words and Music’s opening track, Over The Border. Sarah Cracknell whispers the story of the children from her school that made a pilgrimage to Peter Gabriel’s house, before recalling how comforting music was to her in her formative years, as well as giving her a sense of belonging. The young Cracknell “used Top Of The Pops as [her] world atlas” and, upon finding herself in a teenage relationship, “knew he loved [her] because he made [her] a tape”. The reference points (Dexys Midnight Runners, Postcard Records, synthesisers) may not be common to everyone, but the song conjures such an evocative Proustian rush, you’ll find yourself subconsciously replacing Cracknell’s personal favourites with your own.
At this point, it becomes apparent that Words And Music is effectively Saint Etienne’s love letter to pop. Whereas most music about music consists of club-friendly dance tracks imploring a DJ to either turn up or not stop the music, Saint Etienne look to explore the sheer joy – both individual and collective – that music can bring to our lives. True, the album does feature a track called DJ, but it’s more about the restorative powers of dancing your troubles away than anything else. The only song in recent memory to transmit the intoxicating power of losing yourself to music as well as those on Words And Music is Katy B’s Lights On – these songs are about as far removed from the predatory, meat-market feel of Pitbull’s aggressive club tracks as it’s possible to be.
The wonderful thing about Saint Etienne singing of their love for unselfconscious ‘surrender to sound’ is that they’ve got the songs to back it up. Recent single, I’ve Got Your Music, has a huge chorus and tells us, “I feel love in digital stereo” (a nod to the Donna Summer classic, maybe). Last Days Of Disco bears the definite influence of, yes, disco, and comes across like a more dance-oriented latter-day Belle & Sebastian. Haunted Jukebox is a jaunty, airy number, which describes a blossoming teenage romance built upon a mutual love of records.
Musically, Words And Music is in the territory of Saint Etienne’s most popular singles, as well as recalling Pet Shop Boys and early 21st Century Kylie Minogue. There are always bound to be huge, poppers o’ clock efforts with Saint Etienne, and former single, Tonight, is the best of the bunch. The song beautifully describes the nerves and tension associated with getting ready to go to a gig (“Play the album, then play it all again, I can hardly wait”), talk of pre-show rumours, wondering about the set-list (“Maybe they’ll open with an album track / Or a Top 5 hit – no turning back”) and the euphoric release when it all comes together. Despite being part of a heaving, sweaty throng of bodies, an undefinable, personal relationship between fan and band always remains (“There’s a part of me / Only they can see”).
Everything that’s been written so far describes an album which is just about perfect but, unfortunately, there are lulls in Words And Music’s thirteen tracks. Several songs lack the spark of their counterparts, and end up being inferior versions of what’s already been covered elsewhere on the record. Occasionally, the feel is somewhat pedestrian and, although a pick-me-up is never far away, it’s certainly an album of peaks and troughs. Saint Etienne’s debut release, Foxbase Alpha, introduced a group full of wit and invention, willing to mix dance and house with trip-hop, heavy beats, and speech samples from television and film. Words And Music doesn’t do that. When it gets it right, it gets it absolutely spot on, but a little more variation wouldn’t go amiss.
However, the album’s highlights – and there are many – are just so fantastic that you can forgive it an awful lot. The method in which you purchase, listen to and digest this record are completely your choice, but if you’ve ever truly loved a band like they were your own and invested time and money in their words and music, you’ll find plenty to make you happy in Words And Music.