In his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, the neurologist and author Oliver Sacks samples the following quote from biologist Gerald Edelman: “Every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.” For 30 years now, British pop heroes Saint Etienne have made songs out of their recollections and record collections. Saint Etienne’s songs anticipate big nights out, practice self-care the morning after, call for more, more, more—all with equal panache. Their music collapses the timeline. “I feel nostalgia for an age yet to come,” the actor Michael Jayston says at the end of a lovely meditation on ’60s psyche and ’90s ambient from 2002’s Finisterre.
I’ve Been Trying to Tell You, the band’s 10th album, takes as its subject a moment from the end of the 20th century when pop music discovered it could loop almost any sound into a hook, and multinational corporations sold the idea that music was less about the instant the needle hits the record and more a never-ending, ever-present stream of cool. Lead single “Pond House” is soundtrack-y in the way of fin de siecle pop, ebbing and flowing in a pool of rootless cosmopolitanism that is in fact grounded in a specific time and place. Gone is the urban-planning sophistipop of Saint Etienne’s previous album, 2017’s Home Counties; in its place, here comes… Natalie Imbruglia, courtesy of her 2001 single “Beauty on the Fire.” “Here it comes again,” Imbruglia sings, sampled, her phrasing bobbing among white-capped breaks, algal blooms of acid, and a bassline oceanic enough to return thoughts of the late genius Lee “Scratch” Perry, who famously evangelized that dub could change the past, as well as the future.
Whatever you think of Natalie Imbruglia, “Pond House” might not change your mind. You might even think it’s Saint Etienne’s recherché chanteuse Sarah Cracknell on the mic. The point is the vibe, an act of imagination in remembering downtempo radio pop as a mix of capitalist blissout and PTSD numbness. A track like “Fonteyn” rolls a piano vamp into a crisp little beat, then suddenly ignites into plumes of mood that could either fill the floors of an after-hours joint or score a Sephora. It’s a familiar sound, evocative of that time when clubbing became a consumable global lifestyle, expensive and escapist and extractive of local cultures. Saint Etienne are that most thoughtful of bands; a track like “Fonteyn” could use a bibliography. But it’s also a bit of a blur.
“Little K” swarms with birdsongs, which are too much with us on records today. In the moment Saint Etienne is remembering, though, they promised the coming of new dawns on ambient-house records and, like canaries in coal mines, warned of bass-driven destruction on jungle mixes. Saint Etienne uses them as field recordings, not metaphors. “No need to pretend,” Cracknell says in a cool, clear voice. Back then, climate change hovered on a distant horizon; today, birds face mass extinction. Saint Etienne captures them on record like they’re already gone.
Most of the album is similarly mournful: Opener “Music Again” tosses and turns in a haze of harpsichord before Cracknell (or someone) decides she “never had a way to go” and the track gives up. “Blue Kite” is a gloaming of fiddle and its echoes, lovely but falling short of the kind of full-on invocation of the spirits Coil achieved after dark at the century’s end. But “I Remember It Well” should be enshrined among the band’s loveliest of songs. Like Space Afrika’s recent stunner Honest Labour, “I Remember It Well” ascends Massive Attack’s Mezzanine in order to see Spiritualized floating in space. Guitars break hearts, beats heal them, a choir commiserates. If Saint Etienne ever give up on disco for good, they can always turn to post-rock.
Hopefully they won’t. Highlights like “I Remember” prove that acts of memory can be consolations. As a whole, though, I’ve Been Trying to Tell You could try a little harder. The album is accompanied by a film by Alasdair McLellan, a bit of which serves as a video for “Penlop.” It’s beautiful, all fuzzy lights and pretty boys on scooters, but a little bloodless. If only the stakes felt higher: that the songs were either catchier or deeper into dub, that in this moment Saint Etienne embodied a little of the brains and brawn of Oliver Sacks on a motorcycle. Or that, as in their eternal masterpiece “Like a Motorway,” music was a matter of life and death. The act of memory is an act, both deed and pose. I’ve Been Trying to Tell You feels passive, lost in nostalgia for an age it hasn’t fully reckoned with. Bet it sounds gorgeous on the radio.
Buy: Rough Trade
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