Sunday, November 11, 2012
Words and Music by Saint Etienne (2012)
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED [re-graded A+ in 2019]
Words and Music bites off a lot more than most latter-day albums by major pop groups -- it intends to be a catch-all "this is your story" for obsessive music people, especially Anglophiles, the world over, all rendered with a spirit of personal and direct communication. To put it bluntly, it's about life; looking backward, looking forward, celebrating hedonism, looking for more, remembering dancing and making out and distant hazy things, and wondering how the years got away, how to regain the urgency. Its sentimentality for its own form, for the utility of dance music and rock & roll, is unabashed, but it knows its audience. There's a broad contingent of people who won't know quite what Sarah Cracknell's on about when she broods about holing up in her bedroom reading Smash Hits and memorizing the charts, biding her time and waiting for a freedom that she may or may not know what to do with. For those who do know, who know this obsession and passion exactly, hers may be the all-time definitive statement about it. Hence, this record is like the sonic Best Years of Our Lives; once you've spent time with it, so much as thinking about it can make you misty-eyed.
The sweet-natured, deeply moving spoken-word piece about budding as both an adult and a genuine fervent advocate of scenes, labels, bands, songs is "Over the Border," which opens this unspeakably beautiful album. It hits close to home because of its simultaneous attachment to the local and to the universal, something literal here (though there is, of course, a street map of imaginary pop-related place names on the cover) that translates to an embodiment of the band and Cracknell's own experience to incorporate the bare fact of coming of age as as certain sort of person. With its references to Factory Records, to Genesis, to lying in and listening to the radio like there's nothing else in the world, it immediately gives the rest of the material a lot to live up to, and the defining moment of Words and Music is likely what happens when this remarkable piece bleeds into the triumphant, explosive "I've Got Your Music," an open-hearted confection whose pound is of the heartbeat.
Listening to a backward-looking synth and beat-heavy creation like this, you can find yourself getting caught up in the past loves it evokes; Pet Shop Boys are everywhere (the florid string-heavy arrangements keep threatening to segue into "It's Alright") and the streets of early-'80s postpunk London seem to pulsate from the speakers. But if Saint Etienne have a message here, even if this is a sort of psychological regrouping and retrospective, it's to appreciate the moment, the everchanging now. Few albums can so easily make you feel as if you haven't done enough with your life, your youth... inflicting an appreciation and/or lament of the progression of years, the daytime relations and nighttime escapes as they accumulate -- seconds and minutes passing by faster than you can grab and savor them. And maybe you can't. Perversely, something like "Last Days of Disco" finds an affection for hardbound pop history in complement to its demand for a nostalgia-free, totally loose and free oblivion, the pure joy of new adulthood tinged with intimacy and propulsion: "Let's dance," goes the towering chorus, "got our act together." It's as suggestive as a novel -- you can see the flashing lights, smell the alcohol, feel the coldness and give of the floor as you shuffle and skip your way across the room.
Saint Etienne's timing for this couldn't really be better; as records by the likes of Pink and Ellie Goulding and even Usher ("Scream") suggest, the sound of Eurodisco and New Romantic is now a modern-day fixation that has lost many of its throwback associations. "Popular" sounds uncannily like something thoroughly modern and energetic that could be on your top 40 station now, and quite effortlessly so, but of course this veteran trio who've rendered dance music a romantic goldmine for more than two decades bring wisdom and the coloration of hard-won artistic progression to their music -- which it makes it more interesting still, and more moving, that they firmly place themselves in solidarity with a defiantly youthful and unfussily populist sound. The music is meant to be everyone's.
Another layer of this, of course, is a wistful glance backward at youth -- and much of this music aches with nostalgia and regret. The build of melody, sweetness, and beat on the remarkably detailed "Heading for the Fair" is steady and consistent enough to hide some of its melancholy, but the acknowledgement of mortality on "Twenty Five Years" is something altogether more sobering, and the relationship funeral "I Threw It All Away" is a stark reminder of the impossibility of going back. On these songs, Cracknell strongly evokes her peer Tracey Thorn in her witty and urbane treatment of depression and regret, infused with the most delicate kind of personal detail. "I Threw It All Away" in particular is almost a difficult listen, for it so straightforwardly confronts the fears that are kept at bay for most of the album, the carefree youth slipping away forever. You will never be the comfortable kid in the back seat again, the sulking teenager in the bedroom; it's on you now. That will never not be terrifying.
It would be easy for an aging band to look down upon their descendants and the revolving, some would say elastic, nature of bigtime pop careerdom, but they don't. Cracknell, Peter Wiggs and Bob Stanley are themselves half a generation removed from the idols they memorialize so sincerely on "Over the Border," and their loving missive doesn't mean to limit or exclude anything. There's an awareness, however, that the complete devotion to music as an entire world will only make sense to a certain breed of people. That in itself is a hard lesson of adulthood -- the difficulty of finding "your own," so to speak. When you step out of this little world you make for yourself, it's like, who else will understand?
That's why the scene described in "Tonight," the masterful centerpiece of the album's first half, is so touching -- it describes a late-night gig, the music taking off, and being surrounded by the like-minded. The excitement generates an absolute giddiness that will be familiar to most of us: "This could be my life / This could save my life." And most importantly, there is this key revelation: "There's a part of me only they can see." That could, in some context, be an annoyingly trite line, and some would never let it pass their lips (Thorn, for one, a master lyricist, would probably scratch it out)... but the thing is that when you hear it in this song, you get it. It's a risk, a huge risk, because it's always a risk being as emotionally naked as not only Cracknell but the entire group is on these cuts, and the fearlessness and, again, openness of the result is startling. "Tonight" is matched by two other emotional peaks, back to back on side two: "DJ" and "When I Was Seventeen," the latter as much a heartfelt magnum opus as its title coyly suggests. If all three of these songs were together, heads might explode -- the tradeoff from "DJ" to "Seventeen" is that intense and rousing after the second or third time through.
With its undercurrent of rueful sadness unflinching, "When I Was Seventeen" generates the most complex feelings a dance song possibly can, its relentless beat underscoring its gorgeous melody and conceit, which means to capture everything about the importance of "those times" and does just that, while quietly beckoning to an uncertain future without ever filtering it through condescension. Really, this and "DJ" are dual celebrations, both vibrantly infectious and provocatively yearning -- for the band to have put them together in this masterfully paced program makes for bliss of the highest order. If the album as a whole didn't already have this effect, it's here that you'll feel compelled to turn the lights out and deal with the involuntary flashbacks or maybe just dreams. If they are merely dreams, they seem like more, like a burst of real life in a suffocating tide of nothing. That's exactly the way music feels to you when you're a teenager -- which is, no shit, the point. It can't be overstated, though, that this music is alive, it's beautiful, and its openness and warmth could make you cry. Close your eyes, fade away, etc.