Saint Etienne explore pop—exquisitely
By Ben Kessler
“My momma said don’t go
There’s nothing for you there…”
—Saint Etienne, “Heading for the Fair”
In James Joyce’s “Araby,” the third story in Dubliners, a pubescent boy shows up late to the eponymous fair, hoping to find a gift that will earn him the affection of a neighborhood girl. But his romantic hopes and dreams don’t mesh with the shabby, depopulated scene that greets him at Araby, and the story ends, “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”
That Joycean flush of frustrated, outraged idealism is arguably the U.K.’s most important contribution to Western pop culture. Joyce’s burn—the natural reaction of the creative consciousness constrained by society’s limited scope for sensitivity—can be discerned in Angry Young Man plays, British New Wave cinema, rock, glam, punk and new wave.
By the time British pop trio Saint Etienne came on the scene in the early ’90s, pop music was already developing its own range of responses to this cultural tradition of anguished social protest. Across the spectrum, artists were looking back at “Araby” and asking: How can we comfort this child? This question produced a split in pop life between protest and succor, political awareness and spiritual sensitivity.
The contradictions might have proved unsustainable had it not been for the suppleness of the pop album form. The new Words & Music by Saint Etienne has been called a concept album (the concept being “love of pop” or “the magic of pop”—you get the idea), but like all great albums, it works not through imposing intellectual unanimity on a set of songs but through thematic repetition and juxtaposition, context and contrast.
All great albums use a folkloric logic—social awareness is dispersed (as if to play dumb for the authorities) among various tracks that have, like Dubliners, a cumulative subconscious effect. The form has an inherent socializing aspect, too. Hearing a beloved single in the context of an album for the first time, you may feel that if this song you’ve played over and over and has come to stand for so much can find its kin, there’s hope for even your most extreme emotions to encounter sympathy.
Few artists have marshaled their contradictions as well in album form as Saint Etienne do here. Words & Music’s very first transition—the gentle reminiscence of leadoff track “Over the Border” into the ecstatic “I’ve Got Your Music”—seems to embrace the entire pop experience. Singer Sarah Cracknell’s exquisite refrain (“Love is here to stay”) hangs in the air, a pause just long enough to introduce anticipation intervenes, then “I’ve Got Your Music” announces itself with the brashness of a breaking news headline. The introspective side of pop collides with the side that favors immediacy above all else. The collision makes one aware of the beauty on both sides.
Read the rest of “Reclamation Pop” on Cityarts.info.
Trackback from your site.