The unhurried new album from English indie pop trio Saint Etienne centers on a theme of geography. Across 19 tracks, the band offers a day-in-the-life snapshot of their native London commuter towns.
The ninth studio album from English indie pop trio Saint Etienne explicitly references place in every aspect of its presentation, from lyrics to artwork to the title itself—which is English slang for a loosely-defined ring of commuter communities that surround the city of London. For American listeners, the closest comparison would be the outskirts beyond the edges of New York’s outer boroughs or the suburbs in general. But neither of those exactly matches the ambience of a setting that Blur guitarist Graham Coxon once described with an image of blue tit birds pecking for the cream at the top of home-delivered milk bottles.
Like Coxon, Saint Etienne’s chief lyricists—frontwoman Sarah Cracknell and keyboardist Bob Stanley—paint pictures of a seemingly idyllic place that becomes a stultifying enclosure for its inhabitants. With Home Counties, they take listeners on a tour through their native world via 19 tracks that, according to the band, thread together a day-in-the-life snapshot of the entire region. Geography naturally plays a prominent role. “The trains took us away from the smoke,” Cracknell narrates in a spoken passage from the moody, bossa nova- and flute-tinged organ epic “Sweet Arcadia.” Her narration runs “from Fenchurch Street through Limehouse, West Ham, Barking, and over the fields to Laindon, Dunton, Pitsea, Benfleet to Southend on Sea.” Other songs evoke snapshots of trips home across the moor, commutes to and from the town of Whyteleafe “on the rail-replacement bus,” and an apple tree up a winding hill, and so on.
Though the entire album plays on its characters’ relationships to the mundane, Cracknell and Stanley refrain from spelling out much of anything about the lives of those characters. Few things are as universal as mixed feelings towards the place you grew up, but Home Country’s message takes a backseat to the music. According to the band, for example, “Whyteleafe” imagines David Bowie if he’d ended up as a working stiff who daydreams out the bus window of “the Paris of the sixties/The Berlin of the seventies.” You’d never know it, though, unless you were told. Likewise, good luck finding the hints of post-Brexit England that Cracknell has recently said the band laced into the new album’s storylines.
After recruiting Cracknell in 1991, Saint Etienne settled into a pattern of framing each album around a theme while also varying their musical approach. This time, the band’s trademark dance element no longer serves as the music’s primary backbone thanks to more fleshed-out arrangements by producer/multi-instrumentalist Shawn Lee. In spots where Lee plays live drums, he provides a solid counterpoint to Stanley and fellow keyboardist/co-founder Pete Wiggs’ electro-thump. Across the board, though, the musicianship shows a level of seasoning and poise that precious few bands manage after becoming comfortable with their identity. It’s that sense of comfort that keeps Saint Etienne grounded when they step out on the album’s many musical limbs.
Saint Etienne have never been the type of band that hits you over the head with attitude or attack. They sound especially loose and unhurried here. You’d expect an album with so many hookless detours to lose steam. Much of “Sweet Arcadia,” for example, consists of keyboard haze that’s devoid of rhythm. And you won’t be tapping your toe to “Angel of Woodhatch,” which closes the album out with dour cello, flute, and soft steel drum percussion. Nevertheless, the sweeping, open choruses of songs like “Magpie Eyes,” “Whyteleafe,” and “Take It All In” steal the show, and those songs are actually supported, not diminished, by the more abstract moments. Saint Etienne never identified as Britpop, and fair enough. But with Home Counties, they give us a glimpse of what cutting-edge ’90s pop could have become if it had evolved into adult music with a more earthbound point of view.