Are you sick of hearing about Proust’s madeleine, gentle reader? Will an involuntary gag reflex cause you to vomit up the combination of cake and tea that comes so conveniently at the beginning of the first volume of his monumental work À la recherche du temps perdu? Assuming the answer to the above is yes, then, in regard to this album, let’s not and say we did.
If anyone is confessional, however — to the point of oversharing — it’s Proust. And although I’m usually suspicious of the confessional mode, Words and Music by Saint Etienne is an album that evokes this response strongly. So let me tell you a story of the late 90s: At Bazooka, a sadly-lamented Sunday night indie club, we’d request the extended version of Pulp’s “Countdown” and dance frenziedly as the chorus came on.
Good times… but it’s no more than a truism to say that we tend to view the past, particularly when it relates to youth, through rose-tinted glasses. Still, the moods we evoke in this way are, in themselves, rich and strong (like a good teacake), regardless of the truthfulness of memory. On Words and Music, an album that has front-and-center a theme of aging within the pop landscape, Saint Etienne take on this very problematic. I’m usually dubious about music that deals with pop artists’ experiences of their own aging (prime offender, The Cure’s “39”), but here I declare my prejudice not only unwarranted, but the reverse of the case.
Aging itself is a teleological journey, a psychogeography, as is the cover of the LP. But where does such a journey start? Pulp’s aforementioned “Countdown,” a song that speaks to the central issues of the album, provides a clue:
“I was seventeen when I heard the countdown start
Time of my life, I think you came too soon
And it could be tonight if I ever leave this room.”
One originary point is the bedroom (an obvious, if standard, point of origination) and with it the desire to be ‘out there’ experiencing music communally, but also ‘in here’ experiencing it transcendentally. Another is a certain age, “When I Was Seventeen,” somewhere between teenagehood and adulthood (a return to the theme of Good Humor’s “Sylvie”). Like such compatriots as Pulp and Pet Shop Boys — the latter group also an evolution from music journalism and a curatorial project — Saint Etienne are central figures in the purveyance of a particular nexus of indie, dance, and literate Anglophilia. But in their more pastoral moments, their restrained genre experimentation, and their evocation of a vanished England of the slightly absurd middle classes, of mock Tudors and public service announcements, we can also hear less likely suspects, the forerunners of artists like the Ghost Box stable, with their Keynesian nostalgia.
I’ve listened to Words and Music not a few times now, and every time, I get a predictable lump in my throat on opener “Over the Border,” a spoken-word account of falling in spiritual and physical love with music, and the fact that that first love now belongs to the realm of history. I don’t think this is because I’m a sentimental bloke — indeed, if anything I tend to be resistant to the too-easy, banal intimacies of spoken-word introductions, as on Tindersticks’ otherwise stunning The Something Rain. But I’m not sure that I’ve heard another piece that speaks so clearly, so unaffectedly (“words and music” as statement of intent) to the experience of the importance of music in psychic life. This experience, to be sure, isn’t shared by all (though if you’re reading this, you’re likely a sharee), and so it can have the sense of a secret club, a revelation shifting over time, a persistent call and persistent response.
Speaking of the call, you’ve probably already made up your mind about Sarah Cracknell’s much-discussed voice, which here is much as ever, though even more so, sexy and capable of being moving without tending either toward the diva belt or soulful croak (both admirable styles, I hasten to add). The pop tunes on the album, as pop tunes, are as good as the best of, say, Kylie or Madonna; it wouldn’t be drawing too long a bow to mention the better moments of Sophie Ellis-Bextor. And the lyrics on these are often as poppy as they come (“I’ve Got Your Music”). Usually I’d only have harsh words for the lyrical cliché, but here, occurring in the context of a discussion of pop music and framed by meta-reflection… well, I just don’t.
Sure, there are some issues with the positions that Saint Etienne adopt — for example, the big-R romantic perspective that music replaces church, another broadside in the futile attempt to use art to fill the God-shaped hole in Western culture. And I could do without the “Twenty Five Years’” revision of the decision to marry (let’s mature into the abolition of state-recognized marriage instead). But overall, these are charming flaws.
Words and Music by Saint Etienne is a more well-tempered and, finally, a more mature piece than 2005’s interesting but uneven concept album Tales From Turnpike House and the genre haphazardness of Finisterre (2002), and the hooks here are a whole lot hookier and more multiple-orgasmically frequent. Indeed, I’d hazard that this is easily Saint Etienne’s best album since 1998’s Good Humor. They’ve always consciously resisted gesturing toward the timeless by referencing contemporary acts or moments. And that remains true here on songs like album standout “Popular,” a paean to the curative powers of the online project of that name “reviewing all the UK Number One hit singles, in order” — or in the light brushes of Auto-Tune the listener encounters here and there. But on Words and Music, in Saint Etienne’s reflection on the past, this timelessness arrives exactly in the gap between the past the music reflects upon and the present in which it is performed and recorded — reaching, finally, to the future present in which we listen.