sat 13/07/2024

CD: Saint Etienne - Home Counties | reviews, news & interviews

CD: Saint Etienne - Home Counties

CD: Saint Etienne - Home Counties

The trio return with an album of shimmering melancholy and poised pop

Saint Etienne: bringing it all back home

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” said Samuel Johnson. It’s utter balls, of course. When someone’s tired of London, they’re probably just knackered and wouldn’t mind living somewhere with more trees, fewer people and in a house that isn’t partitioned off by papier-maché walls. For many, returning, like salmon to the counties that spawned them, is the obvious move.

Sure, they know that they’ll die there, but there’s an almost magnetic force at work – an attraction that is both complicated and impossible to ignore.

For Saint Etienne's ninth album, Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell – themselves the product of a home-counties upbringing – have turned their focus away from their previous preoccupation, London, and on to the counties that guard the capital. Or, perhaps, keep it in check. The result is a cluster of songs that steer clear of all-out nostalgia, opting instead for fondness with an undertow of slight unease.

That fondness is observed keenly in “Train Drivers in Eyeliner”, an imagining of a rail network through the preferences of rail workers. If that sounds like whimsy, it feels much more like a recognition: even the most prosaic and pedestrian can still have heart and humanity at its core.

As for the undertow of unease, well… The previous single “Heather”, is said to be a head-nod to the Enfield haunting, but equally summons the existential ennui of home-counties bound teenagers. It strikes a more ominous tone, both lyrically and with its harder, electro gallop but, in fact, there are unsettling moments throughout. From “Breakneck Hill” (a Radiophonic Workshop Twin Peaks), to the plaintive strings that introduce “What Kind of Fool” and the pastoral, choral melancholy of “Church Pew Furniture Restorer” there are tunes here that are absolutely shot through with sadness. Even the upbeat Frankie Valli shuffle of “Underneath the Apple Tree”, which sounds like it should be about teenage parties in the Chiltern Hills, in fact references the place where Cracknell’s family buried their dead cats.

Elsewhere, however, songs shimmer in carefully considered compositions while parading their pop smarts with telling confidence. The louche, Roy Budd harpsichord funk of “Take It All In”; the breathy bah-bah-bahs backing up the pitch-perfect melody of “After Hebden”; even the sprawling, lilting listicle “Arcadia” contains enough micro-hooks to fund a mini-album in the hands of a lesser band.

This all contributes to a kind of intricate musical push-pull, one that mirrors a very human condition. The things we yearn to escape as children often end up calling us back later – they are, after all, a part of us. They are our building blocks. With Home Counties, Saint Etienne have made an album to return to again and again.   


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