I’ve Been Trying to Tell You, the latest album by the long-running British sophisti-pop trio Saint Etienne, presents quite the paradox. It is the most Saint Etienne-sounding record they have released in decades while simultaneously begging the question of whether it really is a Saint Etienne album at all.
A time-tested tactic for any veteran band making a comeback is to talk about how their new material “sounds like the old stuff”. With I’ve Been Trying to Tell You, Saint Etienne have gone one further. They have emphasized that it was inspired by the entire era in which they created their “old stuff”. Although apparently not reaching back to their early ’90s debut, they have pinpointed the latter part of that decade up through the turn of the millennium.
“Inspired” may be too tame a word for what is going on here. Seventy-five percent of the songs on I’ve Been Trying to Tell You are based around samples from pop songs that hail from the target period. The band are not coy about it; it’s right there in the writing credits, and the liner notes specify which samples were used where. Although Saint Etienne have largely eschewed such sample-heavy practice since their 1993 masterpiece So Tough, it has, if anything, become such a large part of popular music production that it is rarely given a second thought.
What’s the big deal, then? If there is one, it is how the samples are used on the new album. For example, the backing track of “Penlop” is quite literally the intro from the Lightning Seeds’ 1989 single “Joy”, slowed down and looped. “Pond House” does the same with Natalie Imbruglia’s “Beauty on the Fire” from 2002 and even adds the first couplet of Imbruglia’s vocals. Pin the harpsichord-like melody of Honeyz’s “Love of a Lifetime” (1999) up against “Music Again”, and other than tempo, there is no significant difference. Drop the two all-Etienne tracks, and the album could have been called Saint Etienne Remix Lesser-Known Hits of the Y2K Era.
Saint Etienne’s two instrumentalists, Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley, are well-known for their encyclopedic knowledge of new and old pop music. Given that, it’s easy to imagine the foundation for I’ve Been Trying to Tell You being laid in a matter of hours. The band collaborated over the internet rather than in the studio. This approach might seem incredibly lazy, especially since four years have elapsed since the band’s previous album. However, it might also be brilliant.
The reason for that is I’ve Been Trying to Tell You is distinctly Saint Etienne. Despite the samples, it couldn’t be mistaken for anyone else. The only Y2K-era music it’s very reminiscent of is their own. Specifically, in its hazy, ethereal atmosphere and collage-like construction, it recalls So Tough. Nowhere is this more so than on two tracks at the center of the album, which are credited solely to the bandmembers and their cohort/co-producer Augustin Bousfield. On these, Saint Etienne appear to be sampling themselves. “Blue Kite” is an intense swirl of what sounds like backward loops, strings, and the faintest hint of a backbeat, while the heartbreaking “I Remember It Well” features the train whistle-like cooing and sampled urban scene background voices that were So Tough hallmarks. Bousfield adds some emotive guitar, lending the track a paradoxically anthemic nature.
What I’ve Been Trying to Tell You doesn’t have is any of the smart, sweet, unabashed pop songs that have always been parts of even Saint Etienne’s most experimental albums. Instead, it’s like the interstitial parts of their early albums have been stretched out and made into a new album. That leaves downy-voiced vocalist Sarah Cracknell with not a lot to do. Sometimes she inserts phrases or humming, which complements the tracks just fine. On “Penlop”, her “ba-da-da”-ing works, but her attempt to sing a melodic refrain doesn’t fit. On “Little K”, her spoken word works quite well.
This all adds up to an immersive, achingly nostalgic album whose nostalgia transcends time or place. The emotions peak and almost overflow on the devastating, tear-jerking final track “Broad River”, which is quite frankly nothing less than the sound of childhood naivety, hopes, and dreams being released, poured out and given over to the slow but steady current of time. It underscores the fact that, for all the talk about the optimistic ’90s, this is Saint Etienne’s saddest, most melancholic, heaviest album to date. It is also, at eight tracks and 40 minutes, their shortest.
It is undeniable that in Saint Etienne’s more prolific earlier years, I’ve Been Trying to Tell You would have existed as one of their many bonus discs or fan club-only issues rather than a major release complete with attendant long-form video and super-deluxe boxset versions. But maybe that is the point. Pop music has always been, at its core, about taking extant sounds and ideas, putting them in different contexts, and sometimes building on them. Saint Etienne have always emphasized concept as much as content, and this might be their concept here—an album that proves the complexity of pop with some simple, manipulated samples. Over their 30-year career, they have earned the benefit of the doubt.