There is a great book that was recently released called “All Our Wrong Todays.” It is about a man who lives in a world that enjoys an unlimited supply of renewable energy thanks to an invention that harnesses the power of the earth’s rotation. The short version of the story is that the main character – due to the ensuing events, one may or may not want to consider him the protagonist – has access to time travel, and winds up stuck in our horribly messed-up world (his words, but also mine). It’s a very fun read, and author Elan Mastal gives us some perspective in the process; in his alternate, superior-in-nearly-every-way universe, one in which there is no war or starvation, punk and hip-hop never happened, because there was nothing for people to rebel against. Our world may be awful, but our music, as far as the protagonist is concerned, is much, much better.
It is through that prism that I view Saint Etienne as a band from that other universe, which sounds damning based on my previous statement, but is in fact the opposite. They are the sound of bliss and infinite possibility, where even their bleakest songs (ahem, “Heart Failed (In the Back of a Taxi)”) come with a buoyant melody, and the band’s core sound is a combination of ‘60s-era pastoral pop and ‘90s UK club sensibilities, which is the kind of thing only a band from another world, a more forward-thinking world, would dare to do.
Home Counties, Saint Etienne’s new album and the band’s first in five years, is hopelessly English, arguably the most English album since 2009’s The Duckworth Lewis Method which, for the uninitiated, is a concept album (!) about the game of cricket (!!!). Home Counties is a concept album as well, referring to the counties that surround London, and the lives that its largely middle-class residents lead. There are occasional between-song radio announcements regarding upcoming programming, sports updates, and (impossible) music trivia, breaking up songs about teenagers frustrated by the bubble-wrapped safety of their upbringings, and an imagined conversation between workers and management at a meeting of the union of train drivers. Bacharach-esque melodies, 12-string guitars, harpsichords, lyrical references to both Bowie and Whitesnake, and children’s choirs abound. It is the sound of a band acting their age (acknowledging that they are no longer the club kids), while making fun of it at the same time.
For those looking for something along the lines of the band’s big club bangers like “He’s on the Phone” (none of which, amazingly, cracked the UK Top 10), the closest you’re going to get is the Vicki Sue Robinson-riffing “Dive,” which is top-notch UK disco, and therefore terribly uncool and completely the point. It’s only fitting that an album about the suburban experience features a dance track that, sonically, is decades removed from what the big city clubs are playing (except for the indie disco that Neil Hannon sang about on the Divine Comedy’s album Bang Goes the Knighthood, which would be all over this song). That’s how the suburbs work; the adults largely tune their frequencies to only hear the sounds they want to hear (something familiar). Saint Etienne exploits that truth with ruthless efficiency here.
The majority of the album carries a melancholy, after-hours vibe. The gorgeously catchy “Magpie Eyes” is jangle pop wrapped in machines, “Underneath the Apple Tree” has a driving, Motown-eqsue drum beat (think Texas’ “Black Eyed Boy” with horns instead of strings), and “Heather” is the only other song besides “Dive” to venture into club territory, but not really (the a cappella intro is one step removed from a horror movie score). The album’s showstopper, though, is “What Kind of World,” which is about exactly what you think it’s about.
“What kind of world is it we’re living in / What kind of world is this / I feel like packing it all in / Let’s find another country, nearer the sun / Let’s find another country / A better one.”
Strategically placed as the third-to-last song, just before the sprawling spoken-word art piece “Sweet Arcadia” and the gorgeous closing instrumental “Angel of Woodhatch,” “What Kind of World” is where the band reframes the narrative of the album. Yes, life in the home counties is easy, but resist the urge to get comfortable. The world needs us, all of us, now more than ever. Perhaps the band are finally remembering that they don’t belong here, and are trying to reshape our world in the image of the one they left behind.
With Home Counties, Saint Etienne has placed themselves in a most enviable position, in that they are poised to age more gracefully than anyone from their generation. Those songs like “Like a Motorway” and “Hug My Soul” early in their career, the ones that were written off as missteps by the band themselves due to their underwhelming chart success, feel in retrospect like signs that the band was playing a long con. “You like it now, but you’ll learn to love it later,” to paraphrase a great song from a great album by a not nice person. Home Counties is the later.