A return to form from old favourites is a wonderful thing and on this, their ninth album, Saint Etienne achieve it by going back to ‘sweet suburbia… searching for the action’ as their classic 2002 single put it. The odd misfire of last album ‘Words and Music’ from 2012 is gone, although that excellent remix CD just about saved the day tidying up the electronics, filtering out a few underwritten lyrics along the way. The main issue was that what had previously been light and ironic felt too arch, spilling over into an unattractive smugness and ‘nostalgia by numbers’ 1970s cultural references on, say, “Across the Border”. It was all rather strange given how well the band had negotiated this territory previously but, like the old friend who unexpectedly announces right wing beliefs after their first shandy, not even a Sarah Cracknell vocal could make it work.
Perhaps suburbia is just intrinsically funnier and better suited to the sort of ambiguous treatment Saint Etienne give it here. The suburban narrative is a tightrope walk between the need for escape, balanced by an inevitable affection for where you come from. There’s a poignancy to knowing that our parents and grandparents certainties and dreams of the future were unrealised and swept away, just as there is a comfort in recalling the simpler times of childhood. The sleeve art is like an architect’s drawing of the ideal 1960s suburban home, bright primary colours in blocks of poster paint, embellished with printed versions of the sort of shiny stickers that LPs used to have. The sparkly glitter stickers are intentionally way too big for the CD version, perhaps to obscure identifiable detail making the house represent a generic suburban semi, or perhaps to signify that memory shrinks that world to the good stories you tell yourself about the past as you age. Ultimately we may have had Austin Allegros to drive, paedophiles on TV and the power may have gone off frequently, but we still had hope and agreement that a more equal society was worth striving for. Contrast this with today’s culture of selfishness, emboldened by the ability of a self-appointed elite to enjoy the upside of a civilised society without contributing their share of tax to its maintenance – would our grandparents think it was all worth it were we able to ask them?
So the album shifts between songs of longing for escape from restriction, ‘Something New’ and ‘Dive’ for example, the breezy acceptance of ‘Take It All In’ and the songs about some kind of mythologised suburbia like the fab ‘Whyteleafe’ or ‘Train Drivers in Eyeliner’. The last of these, aside from being a truly great title, is a swoonsome sixties style song in the vein of “The Bad Photographer” acknowledging that suburban hive roles force us into hiding the true self, showing only small differences from the herd. Whether the song intends a feminisation of the macho train driver archetype or simply suggests the need for a softening doesn’t matter, either plays against the stereotype. ‘Whyteleafe’ does something similar juxtaposing the Croydon suburb with the ‘Paris of the 60s, Berlin of the 70s and Stockholm of the 90s culminating in the sublime “Station to Station, Whyteleafe to Caterham” line! Bowie himself may well have grown up in Bromley, but it’s unlikely his Thin White Duke character ever fretted much about house prices and interest rates.
When Prefab Sprout’s Paddy Mcaloon sang of the “music in the names of towns” it’s almost certainly true that he didn’t have in mind the invocation of suburban locales recited by Ms Cracknell on the collection’s penultimate track “Sweet Arcadia”. For all we know Box Hill and Peacehaven may have the same allure as Saint Louis, Amarillo and San Jose but inevitably distance lends a romance to the foreign that is hard to get past, not least because of the certain knowledge that the UK towns are anything but havens of simple pleasures, peace or quiet. The pop culture references though are on safer ground – the “Popmaster” spoof of the Radio 2 quiz is laugh out loud funny and the reference to the Loft’s lost classic “Up the Hill and Down the Slope” in “Magpie Eyes” is appreciated by this music geek at least. ‘Magpie Eyes’ also includes the archaic reference to “some herbert who plays with a band” that sounds like it has fallen from the script of some gauche British rock ‘n’ roll film of the 60s or early 70s like “That’ll Be The Day”, “Expresso Bongo” or anything involving Tommy Steele.
But for all the cleverness the most important bit is that ‘Home Counties’ is a great pop album. Yes, of course its great that Saint Etienne can juxtapose the everyday and the idealised in sharp relief to reality, but without the great tunes of the likes of “Unopened Fan Mail” it counts for little. None other than 6 Music’s Stuart Maconie has pronounced “Home Counties” as the best thing the band have ever done and I am not inclined to argue. An unquestionable triumph.