On Record – Saint Etienne: I’ve Been Trying To Tell You (Heavenly)

saint-etienne

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

For their tenth album, Saint Etienne have taken a trip down memory lane. The trio of Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell have all been recalling events, thoughts and emotions from 1997 to 2001, a period when the UK was basking in rarefied optimism under New Labour. Was it all a bad dream? Was it as good a time as people thought?

Using samples and clever production techniques, the trio pose these questions and more, in the form of a sample-based album that uses clips from the time period. For the first time – presumably for lockdown reasons – the album was recorded remotely, with no need for a studio – and with assistance from composer Guy Bousfield, who wrote two songs on the album.

What’s the music like?

Very relaxed and dreamy, even for a Saint Etienne album. It is much less song-based than is the norm for the trio, and the aim of the gentle memory jogging is subtle rather than firmly pointed. The focus on sonic snippets and the dubby, instrumental approach could easily be teleported from the period in question. We hear less from Sarah Cracknell as a vocalist, but that means that the times she does appear are accentuated, her phrases given extra importance. The profile of the music yields more satisfaction with each listen, as the manipulation of the samples is made clearer.

The samples themselves are unexpected – with appearances for Honeyz, The Lightning Seeds, Lighthouse Family and Samantha Mumba that if anything emphasise the musical distance we have put between ourselves and the period in focus. The field recordings have a more immediate effect of how society might have been before the pandemic, creating their own form of yearning.

Cracknell it is who starts the album, with several vocal lines competing for the foreground in Music Again, where a loping beat ebbs and flows gently. Fonteyn pans out even further, with the wide open natural spaces including birdsong at the end – a quality shared by many recently-released albums, recorded under lockdown conditions. Fonteyn segues into the gorgeous Little K, a warm fuzz of a track with dappled harp and sun-blushed ambience.

Blue Kite is glitchy in profile, drifting in and out of focus, before working up more of a head of steam. Pond House has a slow, wide open beat with a woozy texture, enhancing the dream state along with Cracknell’s ‘here it comes again’ loop. The singer comes to the front of the virtual stage for Penlop, a lullaby in all but name that calms the senses, before the gentle lapping of Broad River completes the recollections.

Does it all work?

Yes. Albums rooted in nostalgia often make the mistake of over-using the rose tinted spectacles in their longing backwards glances, but if anything I’ve Been Trying To Tell You does the opposite, in an unforced but gently nagging way.

The album is more a single construction than previous Saint Etienne long players, its relative lack of songs compensated by the bigger overall structure.

Is it recommended?

It is. I’ve Been Trying To Tell You poses as many questions as it answers, and although it works extremely well as an album to get horizontal with, there are many layers to its genius. It subtly but pointedly asks where the UK is now, where it is going, and were we all sold a dummy as the millennium approached?

There is an accompanying film from photographer Alasdair McLellan but the music for I’ve Been Trying To Tell You creates its own beautifully rendered imagery for the listener to lose themselves in. It is a rather lovely album.

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