Possibly the best thing about the human condition is our inability to know the future.
For a handful of years during the mid-to-late 1990s, life in Britain – we’ve always had a national talent for ignoring events anywhere else – seemed settled, blissful even.
Between roughly the installation of Tony Blair’s superficially empathetic New Labour government by landslide in 1997 and the fall of Twin Towers four-and-a-half years later, the arts in particular seemed to thrive. After dark, musically a hotbed of innovation from jungle, drum and bass, trip-hop, what would become grime all came bursting out of the underground. Above it all lay Britpop.
For Saint Etienne these were halcyon days as well, as having co-featured in the infamous April 1993 issue of Select alongside Suede and The Auteurs which staked out our reverse cry of independence, their dreamy cinematic synth pop chimed with the public; a mid-decade compilation Too Young To Die shifting in the region of 300,000 copies.
I’ve Been Trying To Tell You is the trio’s seventh album since then and the first in which Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell have recorded remotely, the latter doing vocals in her son’s bedroom. It’s also their first sample-based album since So Tough almost thirty years ago.
The borrowing is thoughtful, as you might imagine. Natalie Imbruglia ghosts the sweet-tempered, dub inflected Pond House, whilst the less-recalled Honeyz appear on the baroque opener Music Again, and there’s even a disguised turn for indie wets The Lightning Seeds.
This largely beatless soundscape is more surprisingly also influenced by Chillwave, the obscure nano-scene built around 80’s video game soundtracks and recreated on cheap bedroom PC software that flourished primarily on YouTube.
Accompaniment by a film project directed by high-fashion photographer and long-term fan Alasdair McLellan is perhaps more in keeping with the band’s history. Stanley is also clear on this collection’s purpose: ‘To me it’s about optimism, and the late nineties and how memory is an unreliable narrator.’
It also nods forwards though, the visual interpretation of I Remember It Well, McLellan says, spooling on from the high street’s pre-Internet shopping peak to the colder reality now of a former institution in its death throes.
This clearly isn’t a conventional Saint Etienne album – whatever that might be – and throughout it’s hard to ignore the idea that Cracknell is operating more as an actress than a singer.
On Penlop, Stanley reckons her as a ‘travel guide’, steering the listener through a wormhole to when the guilt of the past didn’t overwhelm hopes about the present. It’s the album’s best moment, as unravelling from a moody, downtempo start it climbs into starry firmament in which every one of the good old days lives happily ever after.
There’s an astuteness at work too, a knowing that there’s no finite co-ordinates to our subjective past. Each track is notably different in character, from the blurry Aphex Twin ambience of Blue Kite to Fonteyn’s retro-cinematic charm and the blissful kick drum swatches of Little K. Accordingly, each feel like separate chapters – if not deliberately – and this serves as the only criticism for anyone out looking for a clearly marked path.
Nothing lasts forever of course. In the confused aftermath of 9/11, Tony Blair transformed from your coolest Uncle into a maniac thirsting for a revenge not his to covet.
I’ve Been Trying To Tell You provides the sound for your mind’s moving pictures, Saint Etienne conducting an orchestra to what you thought you saw, did and listened to in a future which has now come and gone.