“Words and Music” – Saint Etienne

5 stars (out of 5)

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Presumably you’ve already seen the star rating for this album at the top of the page so you know how much I like it.  But I’ve got a confession to make; I hated the first single “Only Love can Break your Heart”.  I was doing DJ sets in a pre-club venue when it was released and everyone wanted to hear it, so I had to play it.  Just to prove that I don’t bear grudges, I also have to admit that “He’s on the Phone” is probably my favourite ever pop single so I think we’re about quits there.

“Words and Music” is an album that I hadn’t expected to hear from Saint Etienne.  We’ve already had a couple of greatest hits compilations and not a lot of chart action in the last 5 years so it was natural to assume that it was pretty much over now for them.   I have to admit that I may have been a bit too quick to write off this very resilient band; “Words and Music” is the best album I’ve heard this year.

Here’s another surprising thing; it’s a concept album.  Any music obsessive, particularly one who grew up in the 70s or 80s will find the album saturated in references to this period.  As with any Saint Etienne album, the musicianship is excellent and the songs are all well-constructed, but there’s much more to “Words and Music” than this.  First of all, there are absolutely no filler tracks (until you get to the bonus disc, but I’ll come to that later).  Secondly, Sarah Cracknell has developed a more mature, experienced vocal style to use alongside the pure, clear tones of the earlier material and at times she sounds a little like Marianne Faithfull from “Broken English” period onwards.

Lyrically, the album deals with the many ways in which pop music affects our lives, particularly during our teenage years, but also forever after as well.  There’s a touch of a classical influence as well in the way the album’s opening song “Over the Border” acts as an overture, setting the scene for the remainder of the album and introducing some of the lyrical themes which will appear later on the album.  This song, like much of the album, is full of references to bands, songs and labels such as “green and yellow Harvests, pink Pyes and silver Bells”, which are very clever and hit the spot for anyone who lived through that era (early 70s if you must know, I got into music very young).

The themes from the opening song are developed as the album progresses.  The solitary teenager listening to music in their bedroom becomes the adult with headphones on the dancefloor-orientated “I’ve Got Your Music” and the teenage rebellion theme is developed on the Italo house-referencing  “Heading for the Fair” (the fair being one of the few places to hear good new and imported music in the early 70s).

Tonight” is about the excitement of getting ready to go out to see a favourite band and sharing the musical experience with hundreds of other fans, while “Popular” refers lyrically to a list of number 1 singles (which may or may not have influenced the band or co-writer of this song, Rob Davis).  Other songs on the album deal with looking forward (and back) within the context of music and the joy of shared musical experiences, particularly the way in which we attach memories to particular songs or albums.  “Record Doctor” also deserves a mention; it’s a sub-1 minute a cappella piece which sounds like all of the parts were sung by Sarah Cracknell and leads perfectly into the Jersey garage styling of “Popular”.

Did I mention something about the bonus disc earlier?  The bonus disc edition features remixes of most of the album tracks and normally I would avoid these at all costs.  I can live without the first half of this disc, but the second half tickled my musical taste buds, particularly the Club Clique mix of “Tonight” and the White Horses mix of “Answer Song”.  I hope you appreciate my dedication to the cause, listening to the entire bonus disc to pick those gems out for you.

“Words and Music”, like Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball” earlier this year, is a strong argument in favour of the album format.  The songs on the album work very well individually but it’s only when you listen to the entire album (not necessarily in sequence, but “Over the Border” should be first) that you fully appreciate the worth of each individual piece.

On the off chance that I haven’t convinced you yet, I have to tell you that every member of the Riot Squad has been playing this album to death over the last couple of weeks.  This is an album that anyone who cares about music should have in their collection.  Thank you Bob Stanley, Peter Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell.

Oh, I forgot to mention that the album artwork is very, very clever and that’s another reason why you should buy this album rather than downloading it.