Saint Etienne understand pop music. They know that all the clichés about pop music are essentially true – that it soundtracks the most important, pivotal moments in your life, that hearing a particular song or melody can immediately take you back in time to those moments so that they never really leave you, and even become a part of who you are. In a way, Sarah Cracknell, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs didn’t need to make an album like Words And Music By Saint Etienne for us to know this – the band began (even before Cracknell joined full-time) by fusing post-acid house dance elements with ‘60s and ‘70s pop and ‘80s synths and have, over 20 years, created albums that sound like patchwork, subversive, unrelentingly melodic histories of popular music.
For all their decades of dedication to the cause, the band have never sounded quite so in love with pop music as they do on Words And Music By Saint Etienne. This is a wistful, heady album dedicated to the way pop music inhabits our lives, or the way our lives in habit pop music – check the map of Croydon on the sleeve doctored with song titles for road names, landmarks and stations, and Cracknell’s assertion in album opener ‘Over The Border’ that she “used Top Of The Pops as my world atlas”. The songs move without a care through genres, from ‘60s chamber pieces to pulsing modern chart pop (care of Richard X and Tim Powell) and the effect is a bit like flicking through a collection of 7s built up over years and playing one after the other or, indeed, scrolling through the cover flow on an iPod.
For much of its run time, Words And Music By Saint Etienne effortlessly toes a line between this genre-hopping, a fair amount of nostalgia and hook after hook after hook. The largely spoken word opener ‘Over The Border’ would be twee if it didn’t cleverly pinpoint the tiny details of growing up obsessed with Top Of The Pops, music magazines and buying tapes from Woolies, an experience possible from the mid ‘70s to the very early ‘00s. Similarly, ‘Heading For The Fair’ and ‘Last Days Of Disco’ ache with memories coloured and perhaps distorted by pop songs, while also managing to be fairly extraordinary pop songs in their own right. Not all the album is rooted in the past however - ‘I’ve Got Your Music’ captures the sensation of putting on a pair of headphones and escaping (“I feel love in digital stereo”) and album standout ‘Tonight’ the anticipation and sheer joy of gig-going. These are moments that could happen at anytime, songs about the continual, ever-present power of pop music, and it’s testament to the band that these songs could easily soundtrack the kind of moments they’re written about for listeners in 2012.
It bears repeating – though Words And Music By Saint Etienne does deal in nostalgia (an obsession for both musicians and music writers, it seems), it puts those feelings into brilliantly constructed pop songs that feel partly indebted to the past and its emotions, but also resolutely now. Saint Etienne don’t need to disguise a lack of hooks with atmosphere or tape hiss like the majority of younger acts – on the album’s second half, ‘Popular’ is a crisp, leftfield pop gem, in the mould of the songs Xenomania used to chuck Girls Aloud’s way a couple of years ago. And then there’s ’25 Years’, which is probably the most melodic rumination on mortality you’ll hear in a while (unless Morrissey is planning on working with Calvin Harris on his next album) – it’s full of euphoria as well as melancholy, just like the best pop songs. And on top of that, it encapsulates the way Saint Etienne are thinking about music on this album – pop songs as memories and milestones, but also possibilities and hopes, whole futures.