“I didn’t go to church, I didn’t need to”. The reason isn’t given or made explicit, but it doesn’t need to be. Because on Words And Music By Saint Etienne, the answer is obvious, so deeply a part of the psyche of the ‘music fan’, that to imagine an alternative would be like starving a flame of oxygen. Music is our church, our chapel, our religion. And right down to the gloriously longwinded title and accompanying record sleeve (a patchwork of musical road names), Saint Etienne’s eighth studio effort feels suffused with the nostalgia and magic wrapped up in the collective memories of a generation of popular song and its consumers.
Opener Over The Border is sublime in its own right, so indulgent in its sense of a specific time and place it feels like it might shimmer out of present existence altogether. “In 1974 I bought my first single, from Woolies in Redhill… Kevin drove us to parties in his Morris Minor”. There’s something in its blissed-out, quaint Englishness that leaps out like a battered old photograph, frayed at the edges but still offering a window back in time, an elixir of ambrosial wonderfulness, all born from “the strange and important sound of synthesiser”.
One of Words And Music’s greatest pleasures is that for a group of Saint Etienne’s experience, it manages to sound thrillingly youthful. Lead single Tonight plants itself firmly in the mind of the incessantly eager teenager: “Check my make-up then, check my watch again, I can hardly wait”, caught up in that irresistible urge to hit the town, to give yourself away to the night and the chance of unknown pleasures. And all soundtracked by the hits of the day – years later, we’ll recall them with awe-filled accuracy – what precisely was playing as all other cares faded into the background, where only the music and the friends around you mattered.
Is Words And Music a ‘concept’ piece? Perhaps, but if so, it’s a concept manifested in a far more cohesive, subtler way than the concrete obviousness of 2002’s Finisterre and its spoken-word interludes. Here, that core ethos, the love of music, emerges in the songs more as a thematic undercurrent than an overly-dominating sonic stamp across the LP. The tracks exist profoundly as individual entities; crucial, considering the album’s centrality on the joys of the pop song. But equally, placed together, they serve to buoy each other up in a kind of audio-based camaraderie that accentuates all the soft prettiness inherent in the production. Sarah Cracknell’s feather-delicate vocals treat the music with the awe it deserves. Hushed, almost whispering at times, the devotion towards what this album seeks to represent is self-evident.
With Xenomania’s Tim Powell on board for Tonight, the sound of the production house behind so many of the greatest pop delicacies of the past decade finds itself worming its way across the entire record. The sparkling effervescence of DJ and I’ve Got Your Music are the real dance stormers of the album – transcendent power-packed anthems of such sheer magnificence that any chart act would surely be honoured to claim them. But in the hands of Saint Etienne, they come into their own; artistry and melody combining with the most brilliant slippage. It’s there in the glowing sensual energy of Popular too, hanging on to a hazy disco slipstream by the fingertips; a snapshot of glistening starlight dancefloors and the beauty of the moment.
The album hits upon one of its finest moments in Heading For The Fair; with its rhythmic, sliding piano building blocks it’s reminiscent of Moby‘s Extreme Ways, but blessed with a twinkling, lullaby-like celestial exquisiteness. Here, once again, Saint Etienne prove themselves as intuitively keyed into the flow and pulse of music interacting with the human body; the mechanical workings of dance and the electrical tempos that drive us.
There’s sadness too, caught in the spooksome, reedy synth lines in 25 Years; breathing out a lament of the indomitable passage of time, changing communities, changing trends, so unrecognisable and so removed from the world of our youth. Words And Music isn’t just a celebration of popular music, but a hymnal ode to a loss of innocence, an end to the passions of our childhood. Returning to Over The Border provides the crux of the record’s manifesto, made real in the wistful longing of one line: “I used Top Of The Pops as my world atlas.” And in that summation, the true epiphany of what Saint Etienne have crafted into being on this album is found.