Back to the Future
The journey of Saint Etienne, now entering their fourth decade of existence, is often seen as a search for the perfect pop moment. With their impeccably constructed, polished productions and sharp, knowing lyrics, they’ve come pretty close to hitting that mother lode.
‘I’ve Been Trying To Tell You’ is a different thing entirely, however. The same ingredients are at play – namely Sarah Cracknell’s angelic voice and Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs’ collective ear for a neat melody and a canny sample – but the results are very much new territory for the three-piece. The traditional verse-chorus-verse structure that so many of their songs follow has been dispensed with in favour of a more amorphous, less ordered palette of moods, a more nuanced mix of samples, electronics and live playing.
The fact that ‘I’ve Been Trying To Tell You’, the band’s 10th studio long-player, is accompanied by a film of the same name, shot by Vogue photographer Alasdair McLellan, is probably the biggest clue to this new direction. Much more, almost certainly, than the fact that the album was recorded remotely during lockdown in three different locations, with Hove now home to Pete Wiggs, Sarah Cracknell living in Oxford and Bob Stanley residing in Bradford, where film and TV composer Gus Bousfield also chipped in with some co-production nous.
If the global reset button and prolonged solitude has had an effect, it’s probably been in shaping the concept behind the work. Based around optimism, nostalgia and memory, the samples are taken from the years 1997-2001, a significant period that began with Labour’s landslide election victory and ended with the 9/11 terrorist attack. It’s easy, given the shadow cast over humanity by the pandemic, to view that period as a golden age. The truth is, Saint Etienne seem to be saying, a lot more complicated and contradictory.
Certainly, that’s the impression one gets from the mixture of sweet joy and bitter melancholy that push and pull the eight tracks here. The album starts with the simple sound of a guitar being plucked, the key shifting up with optimism and then plunging back down as ‘Music Again’ begins in earnest at a funereal pace – so slow it actually reverses at one point. Cracknell’s voice pings from left to right, subject to more processing as the track continues, swaddled in clouds of harmonies.
‘Pond House’ is similarly adorned with Cracknell singing a single line (“Here it comes again”) over a Scritti Politti-style skank, the sound of seagulls evoking happy summer memories while wiry electronics and Mellotron-esque textures duck and weave their way around the soundscape. ‘Fonteyn’, meanwhile, starts with two plaintive Rhodes chords not a million miles away from the atmospherics of DJ Shadow’s ‘Endtroducing…..’, its phasing, off-kilter backbeat and slow-motion house peppered with vocal fragments. It manages to be simple and upbeat but there’s still a hint of sadness as a field recording of birdsong brings it to a close.
The instrumental ‘Little K’ follows next, centred around a looping riff that’s half John Cage, half Spiritualized. There are quietly muttered spoken word snippets, and more Cracknell vocal phrasings – rather than actual words – adding an ethereal layer and heart-tugging emotion to the mix.
Another instrumental, ‘Blue Kite’, is woozy and disorientating, a sort of sonic bridge to ‘I Remember It Well’, which has affectionate family squabbles playing in the background as saxophone and guitar pick out simple melodies. ‘Penlop’ sees the band return to a Scritti-style electronic reggae jaunt, light and gloriously breezy – at least until Cracknell’s looping refrain of “I really loved you / But I loved to shun you” lends it some darker relief as it moves towards a climax of epic-sounding chords.
The album’s closer, ‘Broad River’, is a moment of both simplicity and impact, a lilting piano and a final vocal edit – “A love like this again!” – adding the last pieces to the puzzle, as florid strings take on the mellow glow of an all-too-fleeting sunset.
We all knew Saint Etienne could pen a decent tune. They’ve always known the right names to drop, the best remixers to hire and which tracks to sample. At times, it felt like they were perhaps hiding behind that knowledge and confidence. If anything, ‘I’ve Been Trying To Tell You’ is the sound of Saint Etienne laying themselves open, exposing their vulnerability. In doing so, they’ve achieved something that’s not only as cool and snazzy as you’d expect, it’s genuinely touching and emotionally resonant. That’s quite a result.