Once upon a time, in the different land called 1990s Britain, there was a band called Saint Etienne. They dazzled their fans with their clever music and catchy tunes. They took inspiration from quintessential British mundanity, like currant buns and chicken soup; while simultaneously expressing a passionate love affair with the rest of the world – especially continental Europe – French films, German electronica, Scandinavian pop…
They were loved. And all the people in the land (well, the younger ones who were gagging to vote New Labour in the upcoming 1997 election), knew that the three members were speaking for them, when they sung: “Too young to die”.
Last October the band celebrated the 25th anniversary of their 1991 debut, ‘Foxbase Alpha’, in a special show at London’s Heaven. But what a difference a couple of decades make. In this post-Brexit isle, the majority no longer seem to be in a love affair with Europe. Optimism has been replaced by distrust. The glamour of globalisation has eroded like a mud cliff into the sweeping tide of populism.
Seeing as Sarah, Bob and Pete always draw inspiration from everyday UK, in some ways their new album ‘Home Counties’ chimes with the times. It's one long ode to middle England, and the suburban towns that lie in London’s commuter belt.
The girl in ‘Something New’ longs to be free of her humdrum life. ‘Magpie Eyes’ is full of the unspoken thoughts of two lovers juggling life between boxy terraced houses and the office. ‘Whyteeafe’ takes us to a staff Christmas party and a rail-replacement bus service. And ‘Sweet Arcadia’ is the long-lost sibling to ‘Foxbase Alpha’s ‘Girl VII’; only where that went on a journey around the world, ‘Sweet Arcadia’ sees Sarah purr dreamily about Surrey, Boxhill, Kent, mock-Tudor sheds and “make do and mend”.
On the surface it’s all very Daily Mail. Only it’s not. True to form, St Etienne can’t help but give us a much more than Ukip navel gazing. ‘Whyteeafe’ also happens to reference “the Paris of the 60s”, ‘Train Drivers In Eyeliner’ is what it says on the tin, and ‘Sweet Arcadia’ proudly states – with a flash of anarchy – “we took your land… and we made it our land”. Take that, Theresa May.
The band’s approach to music-making has always been as eclectic as their references, but generally they’ve stuck to one approach per album. Unfortunately this is where ‘Home Counties’ comes a bit unstuck. There’s quite a lot going on.
‘Take It All In’ and ‘Underneath The Apple Tree’ dips into their love of ‘60s production (business as usual, tick.) But ‘Out Of My Mind’, veers dangerously into Eurovision pop (in fairness, another St Etienne interest), while ‘Dive’ comes for you fresh from a sleazy ‘70s Italian dancefloor. Throw in some spoken dialogue, classical instrumentals and a few piano ballads, and don’t be surprised if – on first listen – you mistakenly assume your music player has erroneously flicked onto another playlist every third song.
Maybe it’s one of things you won’t give a shit about in five years time. But right now, it’s a bit… messy. Then again, maybe that says something about the UK right now. It’s also in bit of a mess. Trust Saint Etienne to do such a fine job of reflecting it back at us. Again.
Words: Joe Heaney
- - -
- - -
For tickets to the latest Saint Etienne shows click HERE.