Review: Saint Etienne mesmerize on 10th album ‘I’ve Been Trying to Tell You’
There are not many bands that have been around for 30 years whose new album is A) unlike anything they've ever done before but B) still sounds like themselves, and C) is also one of the best of their career. But Saint Etienne have done just that with their mesmerizing, dreamlike 10th album.
Like a lot of records out this year, I've Been Trying to Tell You was born out of lockdown. A writer when not doing Saint Etienne things, Bob Stanley would work to the sounds of "liminal" tracks uploaded to YouTube, which were usually '70s and '80s soft rock hits slowed to the point where they became an aural lava lamp -- glowing, undulating orbs of sound suspended in goo. Most of the songs were American, though, and Stanley got the idea to do this with British pop singles. This chilled-out style of music naturally inspires feelings of nostalgia, so he and bandmate Pete Wiggs decided that all the songs should come from the last period of real optimism in the UK, which was from 1997 to 2001, roughly the span of time between Tony Blair getting elected Prime Minister (after an 18 year reign by Tories Margaret Thatcher and John Major) and the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.
Armed with feelgood singles by Natalie Imbruglia, Samantha Mumba, The Lighthouse Family and more, they created loops, dropped the tempo to a lurch and then added more beats, synths and atmospherics, and then brought in singer Sarah Cracknell to add lyrics and vocals. Initially they thought they might release it as a fan club Christmas record, but when they played rough mixes to their manager who told them they've got their 10th album. Lockdown allowed for lots of time to finesse the tracks, and they also brought in Gus Bousfield of Gurgles for additional production and instrumentation.
I've Been Trying to Tell You is quite an achievement, a gorgeous, hypnotic record that feels like a half-remembered dream, a memory of a time and a place that has faded to flashes of color and pure feelings. It's an album that evokes the last days of summer, when you were young and life was good and carefree. Or at least seemed that way. Most songs build off their core sample, repeating, as if being held in a single moment. That moment might get more vivid, or degrade, but it rarely moves beyond it. Likewise, Cracknell's lyrics and vocals are usually just one line, repeated till it sinks deep into your memory bank. It's a euphoric state, though some looking at it from another perspective might see it as being trapped.
Like The Caretaker's An Empty Bliss Beyond This World, this is a mood and a vibe as opposed to an album of pop songs. Likewise , the samples -- songs mostly lost to the era -- rarely prompt moments of recognition. But Saint Etienne can't help but stash some big hooks in the shimmering haze, from the dubby basslines of "Pond House" (which uses Imbruglia's "Beauty on the Fire" as a vocal hook) and "Fonteyn," to the standout "Penlop" which transforms The Lightning Seeds' "Joy" into a thing of gauzy beauty worthy of Mazzy Star. There are also two non-sample-based instrumentals on the album -- "Blue Kite" and "I Remember it Well" -- that argue Saint Etienne could have a career in Slowdive-style shoegaze still to come.
There is also an I've Been Trying to Tell You film which was made by high fashion photographer and Saint Etienne superfan Alasdair McLellan, who usually works with artists like Adele and Beyonce and who takes the themes of the album and burns them into celluloid. Like the memories evoked in the music, the film is impressionistic; moving Polaroids capturing moments of days gone by. There's no plot to speak of, just a group of impossibly good looking young people have the time of their lives (well, mostly), shot in slow motion and in such picturesque UK locales like Portmeirion ("The Village" in The Prisoner), Avebury, and Doncaster. (What dialogue there is, cleverly, comes from the lyrics of classic Saint Etienne songs.) Yet the film is utterly transfixing. More than a companion piece, the film is the arguably best version of the album and you really benefit from watching it on a big screen with a great sound system. But I"ve Been Trying to Tell You is also great on headphones, capable of turning a mundane city block into vivid memories of arguably better days.