Saint Etienne’s ninth record, Home Counties, comes with a number of stickers on the front. One of them reads, “skilled musicians with over 25 years experience”. It’s a typically endearing move from one of the UK’s best and most charming groups. Over that time, Saint Etienne have released records with different themes and musical influences but all have shared similar aesthetics. Home Counties features familiar ingredients. There’s warm songwriting, lush melodies, references to British culture and a sense of humour. The familiarity and mastery of their craft doesn’t dilute the joy of their new release.
Words & Music, from 2012, was a love letter to pop music that aptly featured some of the poppiest songs of their career. The most immediate difference in Home Counties is the lack of big pop songs like ‘Tonight’ and ‘I’ve Got Your Music’. There are upbeat moments here but they’re more subtle. There’s the light 70s disco of ‘Dive’ and the gentle Motown of ‘Underneath The Apple Tree’. ‘Out Of My Mind’ has a touch of Pet Shop Boys at their most understated. Although it doesn’t hit the big pop highs of their recent past, ‘Magpie Eyes’ makes sense as the first single. It has a hypnotic chorus and motoric bass.
Musically, Home Counties is a companion piece to 1998’s Good Humor. The use of live instrumentation gives the songs a similar organic feel. ‘Take It All’ has a Serge Gainsbourg-inspired bass line that would fit well on there. ‘Unopened Fan Mail’’ has 60s baroque pop affectations you could find on ‘Goodnight Jack’ or ‘Postman’. There are also hints of 2000’s Sound of Water, especially on some of the interludes and the dreamy, ‘Whyteleafe’. Home Counties is a more satisfying and consistent listen than both those releases.
There may be echoes of their previous work throughout Home Counties but they haven’t lost their spontaneous spirit. The eerie atmospherics of ‘Heather’ is unlike anything in their catalogue. Sarah Cracknell sings the mysterious lines, “Heather was a girl who once questioned her life, she comes and she goes like the warmth in the daylight” over the album’s most dramatic melody. ‘Sweet Arcadia’ works as the third part of a trilogy of spoken word songs that includes ‘Teenage Winter’ and ‘Over The Border’ (the emotional highpoints of their last two releases). Halfway through it morphs into a dark ambient epic. ‘Breakneck Hill’ is an instrumental that has more in common with Twin Peaks than the group’s earlier instrumentals. Overall, this is one of their most varied and balanced releases.
Sarah Cracknell’s rich voice has always characterised Saint Etienne’s sound. She excels on Home Counties. Her delicate voice lends itself well to the wistful nature of ‘Something New’ as it did on ‘Side Streets’. Her vocals are so breathy and gorgeous on ‘After Hebden’ that it could be on Tiger Bay. As with some of the band’s finest work, the songs are often underpinned by melancholy. It’s most noticeable on the highlight, ‘What Kind Of World’ as Cracknell bluntly sings, “let’s find another country, let’s find a better one”.
Just like Tales From Turnpike House and Words & Music, Home Counties arrives as spring is turning into summer. And it’s perfect timing — they invite you into a world that can best be enjoyed lying back while the sun is shining and the heat is rising. Home Counties isn’t as instant their last two records, but it’s an equally rewarding listen. It makes you hope these skilled musicians continue making records this beautiful for another 25 years.