A little bird told me that this is Saint Etienne’s best album since “Tiger Bay” (1994), and I won’t be the one to say otherwise. Not only because the little bird was God, but also because it’s not hard to see that Sarah Cracknell, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs have clearly come back through the front door. A return of one of the few natural born survivors of pop (as a musical genre, as an aesthetic decision, and in the end, as a way of life), is an occasion worthy of a bubbly toast, leading one to wonder: what group is still doing the same thing so very well, twenty years later? What group is capable of revisiting their legend so freshly? The answer being: only a chosen few and almost none of them are as adorable as this British trio. A real sugar band that one never tires of.
The headline in bold print is that it is a conceptual album, a feature that we were already familiar with in Saint Etienne; looking no further than the competent “Tales From Turnpike House” and also, the less successful, “Finisterre”. This feature works better than ever in “Words and Music”, among other things because it comes marked by a meta-artistic reflection - around which they give free rein to their dreamed-of theories, as if they were skipping about like fairies among the flowers. The theme is “music as a life journey” and it suits them to a T. Don’t forget, Saint Etienne is a group that studies its lessons as if they were to sit an exam on them the next day. And this is their favourite subject. So the result of wanting to explore that meta-musical alibi is a sumptuous love poem written to the art, one that is as brilliant and elegant as Prefab Sprout’s “Let’s Change The World With Music” was in 2009.
In Saint Etienne, what looks like costume jewellery is pure luxury, the complex passes itself off as simple, and what is “teen” belongs to the decade of the 40s. As Genís Segarra said recently, “they have the musical culture of a librarian and the freshness of a beginner”, and their greatness continues to lie in how they use that to their advantage. The cover, with 312 of their favourite songs making up a musical atlas, is in itself a masterpiece (the original that inspired it can be reserved here). Titles like “I’ve Got Your Music”, “Record Doctor”, “Popular” and “Haunted Jukebox” could only have been thought up by someone who has learned that “nothingness is sexy”. Brilliant nonsense like “Peter Gabriel. Peter Gabriel, from Genesis” in “Over The Border”, or using the word “Mississippi” merely to create a cacophony in “Popular” are touches that make the ever-charming Saint Etienne especially captivating here.
Wiggs has explained that having to go through old music for the recent reissues was a key in the development of the album. This fact sheds some light on - and underscores - the idea of this Saint Etienne as Saint Etienne looking at themselves from the outside; polishing details simply by smoothing a few lines, without even changing their colours. Something in “Words And Music” tells us that they have had to change to continue to be the same as they were before, the ones who crossed Free Design with Étienne Daho and Bacharach with The Orb. And it’s not only that, but they also seem to have become aware of it in a panoramic view that is different from that of their birth. Now, moreover, their new listeners seem to know almost everything about the history of pop. They illustrate the double pirouette that this implies with sarcasm (check out the title in the form of credits) and - although I might be getting a little carried away with myself - this is what shows us how the idea of the mirror present on the surface also underlines the band’s not-at-all-superficial philosophy.
The songs fly by like a straight stretch of motorway, with Richard X and Tim Powell accelerations ( “Tonight”, “I’ve Got Your Music”), exquisite changes of gear ( “Heading For The Fair”, “Last Days Of Disco”) and toll booths that take us back to the group’s adolescence in Croydon (the fantastic “Over The Border”). The conceptual framework is set up well, ensuring that the whole never wavers. Although they always like to go together, the hits explode alone, separately, winning us over with eclectic forays that include flamenco guitars, house lights, or little folk flutes. It all shines with a permeable continuity, like really good make-up that hides wrinkles so that you never notice a single one. “Words And Music” is that. Saint Etienne’s fabulous return to youth, with the wisdom that can only be obtained through knowing themselves. Their music once again leads us to both dancing and thinking.