Saint Etienne - Home Counties
Like ripples on the Thames, there are traces of Brexit everywhere. In the comical, Armageddon baiting reaction to the UK general election. In director Ken Loach’s fire and brimstone depiction of class inequality, masterfully depicted in Kafkaesque absurdity in his most recent film, “I, Daniel Blake”. Even pop artists like Harry Styles can’t escape the looming shadow of England’s decline, offering their 2p as part of Britannia’s splintered future. Whether the Sex Pistols had it right that “there is no future in England’s dreamin’”, it’s impossible for residents of Albion not to contemplate, complicate, and live with the fractured state of the nation. Enter the mercurial Saint Etienne, an indie dance-pop group from London, with their ninth album and a winking nudge. Home Counties is a marvel, largely because it sets modest expectations and proceeds to upend them over and over again across the album’s panoramic pastoralia.
Comprised of keyboardists Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley along with distinctive vocalist Sarah Cracknell, the band frequently manages to sneak unique pop structures and experimental electronics into seemingly innocuous tunes. That playful spirit has tracked Saint Etienne through their blustery days as early 90s chart toppers, but has also allowed room for more experimental ventures such as the ambient cloud-surfing of 2000’s Sound of Water. Here their sound is tinged with gentle nostalgia as songs are dedicated to south London locales such as “Whyteleafe” and frequent snippets of BBC chatter hum. Like its vintage album cover, which proudly proclaims “16 new songs about Southern England”, Saint Etienne radiates a charm and easygoing attitude across tracks like “Take It All In” and “Magpie Eyes”. Cracknell’s arch tone, which famously persuaded her bandmates to cancel their plans to have the band feature rotating female vocalists, remains a beautiful and flexible tool across the wide array of electronic styles employed on the album. Straightforward tunes such as “Dive” and “Underneath the Apple Tree” are a cocktail of Belle & Sebastian melancholy, swinging 60s London, each buoyed by Cracknell’s idiosyncratic observations about life and love.
More immediate reference points for Saint Etienne’s sound emerge on the stalwart “Out of My Mind”, which deftly navigates shades of Bowie’s “Life on Mars” in the same way “Unopened Fan Mail” features guitar chords worthy of George Harrison’s best Beatles material. Even better is “Heather”, which recasts Cracknell around snappy percussion into a chilly Bat For Lashes impersonator and lets her versatility shimmer. Home Counties is full of these beguiling moments, effortlessly combining elements of electronic sub-genres and re-framing assumptions about what a twenty-seven-year-old pop group can accomplish. Album standout “Train Drivers in Eyeliner” pulls off this magic trick with aplomb, merging the light surrealism of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band with a progressive message about self-expression and a squonky opening synth right out of Van der Graaf Generator. Cracknell knows how to blend in on “After Hebden”, with its gentle electronic backing, and is completely absent on the moonstruck ambience of “Breakneck Hill”. Like postcards from a quiet sea-side town these songs emerge in subtle shades, culminating in the seven minute “Sweet Arcadia” and utilizing spoken word to praise the natural beauty of ancient England while pondering the creeping implications of a colonizing past. “We took your land… and we made it our land”, she whispers, keyboards tinkling in the background. With empathy, longing, and an underpinning of morose regret, Home Counties reflects the beauty and trauma implicit in its beloved communities.
Saint Etienne’s ninth album is, like the act of looking at any personal community as an outsider, a refreshing challenge. For the uninitiated, or those who have never thought of England much past tea and the monarchy, the album walks a fine balance between charm and impenetrability. This album won’t reveal to you the plight of the south London working class or the insipid machinations of the frothing Tory party. It won’t even provide you a map, so much as point out well known landmarks the way any good tour guide does. Saint Etienne have spent a career wiggling between genre constrictions and boundaries, only to find themselves looping back around to those same fundamental themes. As old as Arcadia, it’s gentle, familiar, and at moments uncomfortable. Going home always is.