As literally nobody says: if you can remember the late 90s, then you weren’t really there. At the time, the period seemed to take on a beatific, easy-going glow in the eyes of the media – the Britpop party had ended but the confidence remained, while Labour’s history-making victory seemed to remove the Tory menace forever. Looking back, emotions are mixed: the art that emerged from the late 90s often feels flat, saccharine, lacking any kind of counter cultural edge; Labour – New Labour – failed to invoke radical change in this country, largely allowing the achievements that did emerge to rest on market forces.
‘I’ve Been Trying To Tell You’ digs into this period. It’s an odd choice – there’s nothing so strange as the recent past, and Saint Etienne choose to linger in between gilded memory and unvarnished reality, somehow invoking both across eight songs that always feel uneasy, always feel engaging, and rarely feel anything else but exemplary.
Their first sample-based record since 1993’s ‘So Tough’, the album draws on a mosaic of sounds from that pre-9/11 period of trans-Atlantic optimism. Re-adjusting sonic traits more familiar with Zero 7, All Saints bangers, and T4 idents into transportive works of art isn’t an easy feat, but the production on ‘I’ve Been Trying To Tell You’ is simply stunning. ‘Music Again’ slows down the chimes of an acoustic guitar into a grinding sense of introspection; ‘I Remember It Well’ seems to open out into a hauntological faux-90s landscape, reminiscent of Forest Swords’ hinterland dreams.
That oft-overused word ‘cinematic’ comes to mind – there’s an accompanying full-length film incoming, constructed by Alasdair McLennan – but only because Saint Etienne’s songwriting is so rich in atmosphere and suggestion. Even at its most left-field – the strange, warped trip-hop elements of ‘Pond House’ push the coffee table into the incinerator – there’s a knack for melody and accessibility that simply cannot be denied.
With a sonic palette bathed in artificiality, Saint Etienne seem to pick apart the plastic, to illuminate the flesh underneath. The slomo progression of ‘Penlop’ drags you into an aural torpor, while ‘Little K’ inverts on-hold muzak to simultaneously embody, cherish, and thoroughly pierce the sense of stasis so many have found in the Blair era.
A record that feels sharply removed from 2012’s glossy ‘Words And Music By Saint Etienne’ and the more autobiographical ‘Home Counties’ (2017), ‘I’ve Been Trying To Tell You’ reaches for the inexpressible. When words fail them – much of the record is instrumental – sounds somehow take up the taxonomy, falling mid-way between a dream state and waking. A hugely impressive achievement, ‘I’ve Been Trying To Tell You’ is technically exquisite, while remaining incredibly difficult to pin down. A project to bathe in, rather than simply enjoy.
Words: Robin Murray
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