It’s a London love affair that has spanned nearly 30 years and nine studio albums for Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell, better known as Saint Etienne. The music, the people, the culture, London permeates Saint Etienne’s art, making them an aural prism reflecting and refracting the past, present and future of this city through their music.
Thoroughly elegant, casually cerebral, but always approachable, their sound continues to fascinate audiences the world over, bringing London―and Britain, more broadly―to those who cannot come to it. Home Counties, their ninth LP, is, to a degree, business as usual for the group. One of the rare recording acts to go from strength to strength, Home Counties continues the steady excellence of its preceding albums Tales from Turnpike House (2005) and Words and Music by Saint Etienne (2012).
Thematically, Bob, Pete and Sarah have used their discography to examine and extol London and its relationship with the rest of England. But Home Counties finds the trio truly revisiting their suburban roots they originated from, as the songwriting here views the metropolis from the outside in, mostly. The resulting songs “Something New,” “Whyteleafe” and “Heather” capture stifled romance, unrealized promise and madness churning under the seemingly bucolic exterior of their hometowns.
With its size and scope apparent in its 19 tracks―cheekily remarked upon by the band themselves on the front cover’s pseudo-promo sticker adorned with a “Two LP Set” tag―Home Counties should suffer from top heaviness, but its run time is breezy, nothing overstays its welcome.
Saint Etienne’s sonic palette is remarkably diverse and as crisp as ever in its pedagogical pop references of fellow musical Britons. There’s chiming Beatlesque pop (“Train Drivers in Eyeliner”) and Trevor Horn inspired symphonic grooves (“What Kind of World”). A feminine take on the tunage of Blur’s 1994 landmark Parklife (1994) in the form of “Take It All In” showcases guitar guile that would make Damon Albarn break into a smile of approval.
Stanley and Wiggs―with production assistance from Richard X, Shawn Lee, and Gerard Johnson (among others)―craft this world that will send their listeners clamoring to the local record shops to crate dig for these muses of Saint Etienne. But it is Cracknell who gives the material a beating heart.
Take the vintage four-on-the-floor fever of “Dive,” with its horns hot, bass guitar funky, percussion percolating, and Cracknell’s vocals that compellingly sashay, dip, and swing with sensitivity and sensuality. Her spoken word piece “Sweet Arcadia” is eerily academic in its tone, but keeps you engrossed in where her monologue will take you.
Saint Etienne’s brand of British pop voyeurism has always had a way of turning the ordinary into something spectacular, reminding us of its common humanity. That skill has become even more meaningful in the wake of the post-Brexit fallout, the divide between London and the rest of Britain now honed to a tragically killing edge. Home Counties is a timely salve of an album, one that has Saint Etienne reaching back (and out) to the British suburban plains to show that the soul of England lives not just in London, but in its surrounding locales too.
Notable Tracks: “Dive” | “Sweet Arcadia” | “Take It All In” | “What Kind of World”