Saint Etienne - Words and Music by Saint Etienne

7/10

It’s seven years since Saint Etienne last put out a new record, a couple of compilations filling the gap in the interim, and Words and Music by Saint Etienne, their eighth, suggests that no-one feels the passing of time more keenly than them.

Bob Stanley recently asserted that the album is about pop’s capacity to shape your life. Maybe that’s true, though it doesn’t feel like the whole story. Words and Music by Saint Etienne documents a life lived for the moment rather than the future and the regrets that follow once bright, brilliant youth wears off; aspirations formed in the shadows of their pop heroes, and money spent on records instead of saved for those cold twilight years. Saint Etienne have always plied tales we can relate to, human success and failure in prosaic ‘burbs. Unlike the immutable, ageless bombast of pop titans who aim for “icon” status and sing about their own survival and immortality, Saint Etienne’s street-level empathy, egoless and devoid of self-mythologising or caricature, also makes them mortal. The characters in their stories will get crows’ feet and varicose veins, their pencil skirts won’t fit them forever, and they’ll ruefully watch a parade of upstarts fill the nightclubs they used to regard as theirs. They have that in common with kitchen-sink heroes Pulp; like them, their music is more than the sum of its parts, and like them, age has brought about a darker set of tales. Once, Sarah Cracknell sang about warning off her little sister from hitting on her boyfriend; Words and Music stills you with the sobering thud of lines like “I’ve got 25 years, maybe more if I’m lucky” and ”I threw it all away/And now I’ve gotta pay/Forever”.

The album follows an unsettling emotional arc. There’s all to play for at the start – remembrance of wide-eyed hope in pulsing monologue ‘Over the Border’, Cracknell’s memories expanding into a sparkling chorus that suggests that all was, and is, well:  ”I’m growing older/Heaven only knows what’s on its way/Every single day/Love is here to stay”. The unfolding narrative gradually crumbles the edges off such optimism; teenage, first-time-clubber ecstasies are brought down to earth by the weight of experience. First love and first embitterment beckon the listener into darker, less proud reminiscences. ’25 Years’ is a rueful admission of mistakes made and time wasted, while clinging to remaining love, whilst ‘Haunted Jukebox’ recalls the associations between forgotten songs and long-lost friends, and imbues them with something sadder and more sinister. Saint Etienne were once the band you played while you put on your make-up on Friday night; now they sound more like a Saturday night alone, surrounded by vinyl and old memories.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. There’s charm in the idiosyncrasies familiar to Saint Etienne fans. In that great tradition of critic-turned-artist, founders Stanley and Pete Wiggs have both earned a living as journalists, and Words and Music makes much of the swottier delights of music fandom, from obsessing over new vinyl to journalistic heroes, with a namecheck for Paul Morley on the record’s opener. It’s a sweet twist of perspective to hear the pop star immortalising the critic. Aptly enough for such a pensive collection of songs, the delivery here is more subdued than the Etienne of old – minor-key backing harmonies and disconsolate melodies take the place of the euphoric, articulate stompers that originally brought Saint Etienne to the fore, but the songs still shimmer, and Cracknell’s delicately enunciated vocals still have that double-edged quality – ice-white yet warm and wise.

It’s not a huge departure, the familiar pumping beats and starlit, ’60s-tinged flavour staying true to Saint Etenne’s oeuvre. But an overwhelming sense of fragility dominates the record. You can trace the journey of one character who’s by turns expectant, let down, wiser, lonely, bitter, frightened, resigned. The pounding, hooky ‘When I Was 17′ is the only track that really escapes the introspection, bursting into life with a rush of melody in the way that Saint Etienne do best, all teenage fervour, staccato oriental strings and instinctive synths, but it’s bookended by much more dolorous moods. As a whole, and coming from these stylish synthpop figureheads, it’s an austere document; intelligent and enjoyable, but one for a certain mood, to soundtrack time spent alone. Above all this feels like a record about age, a table of regrets, smiled-upon memories, and past naiveties laid bare in all their gaucheness through the unforgiving lens of experience. It’s not a record by a band at the end of their careers, but an acknowledgment of the end of youth, the recognition that they can’t get the past back, and don’t know what lies ahead.