Friday, May 25, 2012

St. Etienne returns with new album

Saint Etienne returns with “Words and Music by Saint Etienne,” due out digitally May 29 and vinyl/physical CD on Aug. 14 through Universal Music (stream it on NPR First Listen now).

When Bob Stanley of the long-running British pop trio talks about their new album, he affectionately refers to the “strange magic” of pop: the special alchemy that transmutes even the most mundane of experiences – walking home with the headphones on at night, sitting in a bedroom with your friends in the day, getting ready to go out on the weekend – into a lingering moment of seamless enchantment, one that resonates for the rest of your life.

Saint Etienne are a band who have had an enduring relationship with pop music. From the distinctly English sonic collages of their groundbreaking debut “Foxbase Alpha,” through to the darker folk-inflected turns of “Tiger Bay” and even the glacial electronic landscapes of “Sound of Water,” the history of pop has clearly had a powerful impression on the trio of Pete Wiggs, Sarah Cracknell and Bob Stanley, with the result being that for this, their ninth studio album, they have assembled what constitutes a long form aural essay explicitly exploring the throughline of themes and memories triggered by music which has run through their entire body of work.

As Stanley elaborates, “Words and Music by Saint Etienne” is an album about “how music affects your life. How it defines the way you see the world as a child, how it can get you through bad times in unexpected ways, and how songs you’ve known all your life can suddenly develop a new attachment, and hurt every time you hear them. More than how it affects and reflects your life though”, he sums up, “the album is about believing in music, living your life by its rules."

To that end, the album opens with “Over the Border,” a wry, moving spoken-word reflection with singer Sarah Cracknell ruminating on her first, tentative steps into a lifelong love affair with pop, beginning with her using “'Top of the Pops' as my world atlas” as a child, before mixtapes from first loves soundtrack her teenage years; finally she asks “when I was married, and when I had kids, would Marc Bolan still be so important?”

It’s a powerful, emblematic introduction to the album, one that sees the unabashed, glitter strewn, delirious disco highs of “I’ve Got Your Music” and “DJ” sit comfortably alongside the gorgeous, plaintive laments of “I Threw it All Away” and “25 Years.”

But from Cracknell calling for salvation through song in the gospel-tinged “Record Doctor” right through to her chanting “tonight when the lights are going down/I will surrender to the sound” on taster single “Tonight”, the endlessly emotive, sometimes redemptive relationship between music and listener has never been so celebrated and revered, and through the LP there isn’t a moment when Saint Etienne break that pact.

In the course of their work, Saint Etienne have always celebrated the greats of pop past – Stanley credits Goffin and King, Mann and Weil, Greenwich and Barry with helping him to understand relationships at a formative age, for instance – but with “Words and Music By Saint Etienne” they have made an album which sees them join that rich lineage, those writers of pop songs full of strange magic.

Tracks such as “When I Was 17” and the aforementioned “Tonight” see the group as vital and fresh as ever. Surrender to the sound now; as the group say, there’s no turning back.


1. Over the Border
2. I’ve Got Your Music
3. Heading For the Fair
4. Last Days of Disco
5. Tonight
6. Answer Song
7. Record Doctor
8. Popular
9. 25 Years
10. DJ
11. When I Was Seventeen
12. I Threw it All Away
13. Haunted Jukebox

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