Saint Etienne: Words and Music By Saint Etienne – review

Is pop music something you grow up and grow out of? No way, say Saint Etienne – time just adds to its power

In 2005, when Saint Etienne's last studio album Tales from Turnpike House was released, rumour spread that the band was about to split up. It turned out to be false: since Tales from Turnpike House, the band have put out a Christmas album, a film soundtrack, a complete reworking of their debut album Foxbase Alpha by producer Richard X and – surely the kind of thing you could only really imagine appearing in a Saint Etienne discography – an EP issued solely to those who'd responded to an online appeal by band member Bob Stanley, looking for the handful of albums he needed to complete his collection of Now That's What I Call Music compilations.

And yet, you can see why people thought Tales from Turnpike House could be a grand finale. It drew to a close with Teenage Winter, a beautiful, elegiac song that with its references to "old 45s gathering dust" and obsessive eBay collecting – "He'll win it, put it in a drawer and forget he ever bought it" – appeared to be suggesting it was time to put away a youthful obsession with pop-cultural ephemera. Given that Saint Etienne's whole raison d'etre seemed to be alchemising the ephemera of pop's past – a band whose debut album came wrapped in photos of minor 60s actor Adrienne Posta and Poldark star Judy Geeson, who once made the top 30 with a song previously recorded by Opportunity Knocks winners from 1972 and who include among their ranks the kind of person who goes online to appeal for help in completing his collection of Now That's What I Call Music compilations – this seemed shocking, like Bruce Springsteen coming up with a song announcing he'd decided cars were boring after all.

Seven years on, Words and Music … opens with a song that could be Teenage Winter's negative image. Over the Border features the same structure – a bittersweet chorus flanked by spoken-word verses – but its lyrics fetishise old record labels ("green and yellow Harvests, pink Pyes, silver Bells") and hymn Top of the Pops, Dexys Midnight Runners and Smash Hits. Like Teenage Winter, it wonders whether all this is still relevant in middle age – "when I was married and when I had kids, would Marc Bolan still be as important?" – but this time decides it is. "I'm growing older," sings Sarah Cracknell. "Love is here to stay."

It sets the tone of the entire album, which matches a warm recollection of the effect music can have on you as a teenager – I've Got Your Music goggles in wonder at the scientific miracle that is a pair of headphones, Tonight perfectly captures the anticipatory excitement of the hours before seeing your favourite band live – with the contrary, and it has to be said, fairly radical suggestion that pop's importance is only magnified as you get older, that its escapist pleasures might actually be sweeter amid the stresses of adult life. The a cappella Record Doctor pays tribute to a friend blessed with the uncanny ability to find the right song to fit your mood. Its melody and vocal arrangement a homage to the Carpenters, Haunted Jukebox notes how the memories evoked by old music hit harder as you age. It's genuinely moving, whereas Popular is genuinely funny. It flips the old pop narrative of knowing an amazing secret club where the cool cats hang out: here, the club is an internet messageboard populated by people who want to discuss Pussycat's 1976 No 1 Mississippi in depth. It's less The In Crowd than that episode of The IT Crowd where Moss joins a society of exceptional Countdown contestants.

If the melodies are strong, Words and Music is noticeably less sonically adventurous than Tales from Turnpike House's strange, sublime mix of ornate 60s MOR vocal arrangements, Xenomania productions and guest vocals from David Essex. Heading for the Fair sounds exactly like the kind of Balearic dance track Boys' Own Records put out in the early 90s, and I Threw It All Away carries a hint of baroque pop in its waltz-time and woodwind, but there's something defiant about the way most of the album is set to music roughly approximate to chart pop, Auto-Tuned vocals and all. It's as if Saint Etienne are guarding against the tendency of ardent, fortysomething music fans to cleave to a kind of combative nostalgia, the steadfast, sneering belief that your past automatically beats anyone's present, that everything was better in your youth. Instead, Words and Music frequently sounds as dizzy with the joy of pop as Saint Etienne did 20 years ago, when their single Join Our Club borrowed the Lovin' Spoonful's question: Do you believe in magic? Now, as then, their answer seems to be: of course.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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