Saint Etienne, “Home Counties”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #99 – released June 2, 2017)

Track listing: The Reunion / Something New / Magpie Eyes / Whyteleafe / Dive / Church Pew Furniture Restorer / Take It All In / Popmaster / Underneath The Apple Tree / Out Of My Mind / After Hebden / Breakneck Hill / Heather / Sports Report / Train Drivers In Eyeliner /  Unopened Fan Mail / What Kind Of World / Sweet Arcadia / Angel Of Woodhatch

After the superlative song cycle Tales From Turnpike House, I couldn’t imagine what Saint Etienne would do next—apparently, neither could the band, at least not right away. Seven years passed before the release of their next album, Words and Music By Saint Etienne. Concerning the rituals and pleasures of pop music itself, the concept seemed ideal for a trio of self-avowed fans-turned-aspiring-popstars; in practice, it worked well enough, widely viewed as a comeback on both sides of the pond. It featured some of their very best singles (“Tonight”, “I’ve Got Your Music”) and, as usual with this group, exceptional album tracks that could’ve easily been singles as well (“Heading For The Fair”, “Last Days Of Disco”, “DJ” and the song this blog takes its name from.)

And yet… as a big fan myself, I found Words and Music not completely up to snuff with the four previous Saint Etienne albums I’ve covered here. For one thing, it has a substantial amount of, well, not filler, exactly, but lesser songs I rarely listen to in isolation (“Answer Song”, “Twenty Five Years”, actual throwaway “Record Doctor”); also, celebrating pop through the prism of London is more or less what this trio has always done, but by making it so explicit and upfront, they almost lessen what’s so singular and special about it. Again, for any band, Words and Music is a good album and for them a shrewd one to make after such a long absence, but it doesn’t add anything new to their catalog in the way, say, Tiger Bay or even Good Humor did.

Fast forward a few more years: there’s another band sabbatical during which Sarah Cracknell puts out a second solo album, Red Kite (solid singer-songwriter folk, and worlds away from the dance-pop of her earlier effort Lipslide) while Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs continue curating compilations of subterranean gems from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. When the trio commence work on new material in mid-2016, the world in is flux. Brexit has passed and Trumpism clouds the air. Their new songs aren’t especially angry (how inconceivable to think of an incensed Saint Etienne!) but these developments (especially the hitting-closer-to-home Brexit) have no small impact on the direction their ninth album begins to take.

For most Americans and non-anglophiles, the title Home Counties requires some explanation. The two-word term refers to the seven counties surrounding London—in other words, the suburbs. All three members of Saint Etienne grew up there before moving to London as adults; it follows that one can view the record as reminiscent and hyper-specific of a time and place as Fox Base Alpha and So Tough were of early ’90s London, only observed from a great distance instead of documenting it in real time. However, the album transcends childhood nostalgia because of the band’s obvious love/hate relationship with the region, elevated in no small part by that recent specter of Brexit hanging in the air—throughout the actual Home Counties, more people voted to leave the EU than remain, whereas London voted heavily in favor of the latter option.

The result is an intriguing push-and-pull for Saint Etienne: emphatic and celebratory as always, but now guided by hindsight and filtered through a sharper, critical eye. Initially, it resembles Good Humor more than anything else in the band’s catalog thanks to its live-band feel (the winsome yet enigmatic “Unopened Fan Mail” could easily slot into it) and the fact that Cracknell’s, Stanley’s and Wiggs’ coming-of-age years coincide with the AM radio gold the earlier album successfully emulated. However, Home Counties is no Good Humor II: a mosaic of instrumentals, spoken word interludes and tone poems along with the expected three-minute pop songs, it’s the band’s longest (19 tracks in 56 minutes, but they do fly by) and most varied album since Finisterre (maybe even So Tough)—it plays like a thoughtfully, lovingly compiled mix tape that coheres into a shimmering whole after multiple spins.

As you’d expect from a band known for their meticulous, often hand-crafted attention to detail, Home Counties has ultra-specific talismans woven throughout its fabric. It makes ample room for birdsong and a pastoral children’s choir (“Church Pew Furniture Restorer”), a spot-on Northern Soul simulation (“Underneath The Apple Tree”), a little harp and plenty of harpsichord (most prominently on “Whyteleafe” and “Take It All In”), and not one or two but three recreations of vintage radio transmissions, with quiz show “Popmaster” rather tongue-in-cheek in offering such decidedly modern prizes as “a digital radio or a blue-tooth speaker.” For a band whose early albums were liberally sprinkled with sound bites from classic films, this reprises a tradition of dropping references that will go over a majority of listeners’ heads but also lend much distinction and texture to the world depicted within.

Throughout, Saint Etienne can’t help but retain a certain fondness for where they’re from. In one song, Cracknell eagerly encourages us to “Take It All In” over a baroque retro-pop arrangement with a vaguely trip-hop beat, resembling a rather unlikely cross between The Association and Portishead. “Dive” is a memory of the kind of sensual, horn-driven funk workout one could get down to at the local disco or at a backyard, tiki torch-lit house party. With its clarion chorus and propulsive beat, “Magpie Eyes” encapsulates the bittersweet feeling of being young in a small town after summer’s gone with nothing to do but seek hidden treasure among what remains. Along those lines, “Out Of My Mind” further evokes both the euphoria and turmoil of adolescent infatuation, its ebullience and urgency rendering it a proud successor to such past triumphs as “Nothing Can Stop Us” and “Lightning Strikes Twice”.

Still, they just as often firmly (if considerately) resist suburbia as the utopian ideal. “Whyteleafe” may imagine an alternate universe where David Bowie never left home for London, settling into an ordinary life as a local businessman (Cracknell singing, “His sweet mu-ni-ci-pal dream” over a surging synth is one of the album’s most indelible hooks), but it’s merely a clever “what-if” scenario (and, a year after his death, a refreshingly unconventional Bowie tribute.) Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Something New” is desperately searching for “a sound that she knows could be fun”, and the song’s electric 12-string guitar and Mellotron-aping synth lends her support, especially as it gives way to the resolve and warmth of a brass coda. “Train Drivers In Eyeliner” sweetly advocates for more flamboyantly attired, Whitesnake-listening conductors in an attempt to gently shake up the status quo: “All over this land, that’s our plan,” Cracknell coos, as if stumping for the idea at a Town Hall meeting.

As Home Counties proceeds, it further scrutinizes suburbia, putting aside any notion of rose-colored lenses. Its primary hues purposely turn darker beginning with “Breakneck Hill”, a gorgeously drowsy instrumental that sounds straight out of Twin Peaks. Its spooky female sighs and Eno-esque ambient drone set the scene for “Heather”: a Hitchcock film in miniature, it recalls a neighbor or a childhood friend. Maybe she’s a ghost now, for “She comes and she goes like the warmth in the daylight.” Near the end, Cracknell repeats, “This house is haunted” as the sputtering but insistent rhythm and minor key synths swirl around her, almost fortifying her claim. Perhaps, this tale’s ghost is the narrator herself, wrestling with her past and present selves.

A few tracks later, laden with sweeping, urgent strings, “What Kind of World” fully acknowledges this identity crisis in relation to its milieu. “This is my home but I don’t feel at home tonight,” Cracknell declares before suggesting, “Let’s find another country / a better one,” and it has a thunderbolt’s impact—for many, the suburbs are a place to escape from due to their isolationism, conservatism and provincialism; Brexit enables the suburbs to uphold these tenets, legally cordoning off the outside world. It’s an easy explanation as to main reason why the members of Saint Etienne left the Home Counties, but it doesn’t necessarily shed light on why some people stay.

“Sweet Arcadia” makes an effort to elucidate on this. Opening with another talisman, a watery electric piano of the kind heard on such ‘70s hits as “I’m Not In Love” and “Just The Way You Are”, it’s another Cracknell spoken word piece in the tradition of “Teenage Winter” and “Over The Border”: “The trains took us away from the smoke,” she begins, narrating a travelogue through obscure, self-contained locales with names like Benfleet and South-End-On-Sea. A fetching, suitably locomotive rhythm moves us along as she recounts how the modern suburbs came to be. Over aching chord changes, she recites, “We built our own cinemas, we named our own houses,” charting the ever-forward march of progress until she concludes, “We took your land, and made it our land. Sweet Arcadia.” Her narration disappears halfway through this nearly eight-minute-long epic, consumed by extended flute and soulful organ solos as the beat slows to a wavering ebb-and-flow as if hovering on water.

After Cracknell mournfully sighs the song’s title repeatedly at the close, we’re left not with a resolution but unease. Saint Etienne have offered us plenty of reasons to both love and loathe suburbia; such a mass of contradictory feelings is more true to life than art that would either merely bask in the glow of its idyllic landscapes or only reveal them to be nothing but a cultural wasteland. And as much as this trio has forged a career on songs about transcendence and escape, Home Counties is a step in another direction, observing the world not just as it could be, but also as it is.

And why can’t we consider both simultaneously? If the penultimate “Sweet Arcadia” is to Home Counties what “Hello Earth” was to Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, closing track “Angel of Woodhatch” is this album’s equivalent to “The Morning Fog”. Its gentle woodwinds and sparkling wind chimes potentially suggest promise and renewal; here, with no lyrics to guide us toward a particular opinion, they could simply infer calm and stillness—a sweet surrender to a complex world with so many moving parts. Home Counties is Saint Etienne’s “mature” album for sure, but its richness and teeming ambiguities gives that off-derided term a good name.

Up next: #100!

“Out Of My Mind”:

“Sweet Arcadia”:

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