Saint Etienne have always been exactly the sum of their influences, and what’s more, it’s a fact that they’ve always been unnervingly eager to point out. From [a]Burt Bacharach[/a] to [a]Mouse On Mars[/a], Scott Walker to Steve Reich, every velvet-lined nook and cranny of Etienne‘s fifth album, ‘Sound Of Water’, is documented in its sleevenotes; a reading list pieced together by pop scholars, for pop scholars. Not for Pete Wiggs, Sarah Cracknell and Bob Stanley the visceral thrill. They’ve always been too literate, too ironic.
And that’s why, mumble the critics, if you love the spirit of real pop music, you should hate Saint Etienne with a passion. Give ‘Sound Of Water’ a spin, though, and let your prejudices float off on the current. Made in collaboration with Krautronica trio To Rococo Rot, Sean O’Hagan of The High Llamas, and Jez Williams of Doves, these ten tracks come with such an earnest passion for the timeless pop form that any snobbery is punctured with an arrow drawn straight from Cupid’s quiver. Fear not, also, for the presence of avant-garde Germans; To Rococo Rot proved, on last year’s masterful ‘The Amateur View’, that they could invest pops, clicks and hums with an artificial emotion of surprising warmth.
. It’s a seen-it-all, fucked-it-up-type opening, and while hardly representative of the album, at least flashes a glimpse at its emotional depths. Rather, ‘Sound Of Water’ unveils drifting ballads, effervescent torchsongs, and tear-stained vignettes of metropolitan life – far from the bustle of clubland, a hangover ten years in the making.
‘Sound Of Water’ echoes its opulent, pathos-ridden descent, a sometimes sad, sometimes sorry, and always thoroughly British affair – but where ‘This Is Hardcore’ lapsed into self-pity, ‘Sound Of Water’ battles on. Saint Etienne don’t want you to feel their pain. After all, [a]Burt Bacharach[/a] had no brow to beat, did he? Just timeless songs to write. “Overcome/Just a little”, swoons Cracknell, on ‘Just A Little Overcome’, submerged in the beauty of pop history. Irony? Forget it. Saint Etienne are wide-eyed, tearful, and still very much in love.