Thirty years since their debut LP Foxbase Alpha, English band Saint Etienne are releasing new album I’ve Been Trying to Tell You. At its most simplistic level, it’s a portrait of wistful longing for times gone by. In a more complex read though, it is a high concept album that examines collective amnesia, in particular with regards to the seemingly optimistic four-year period from the Labour election victory in the UK in 1997 through to the 9/11 attacks in 2001. The band are really asking: is such nostalgia justified?
“We were really into 1960s and 70s music, fashion and design when we started the band 31 years ago, perhaps considering those years to be a golden age,” says Saint Etienne’s Pete Wiggs. “A lot of contemporary music references the late 90s seeing those times as a period of optimism, creativity and hedonism. Dark times kicked in in the early 2000s and with the current pandemic, climate change and other global crises you can see why people look back to possibly happier times.”
It’s also their tenth studio album, and as with most projects that took shape last year, was impacted by the pandemic, with the band members Sarah Cracknell, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs – along with producer Gus Bousfield – unable to work in the studio together and instead collaborating remotely over Zoom. The process changed their output significantly according to photographer Alasdair McLellan, who collaborated on the album visuals. At the beginning of 2020, he was sent a “more folky” album with “a lot of ballads,” he recalls. After a stop-start in the spring due to the pandemic, they picked things up again in the summer, by which point the album had been transformed. “It was a completely different feeling. I guess it sort of felt very nostalgic and quite uplifting,” McLellan says.
The result is music that indulges in 90s sounds, whether in the drowsy trip hop or the palette of samples lifted from tracks of the era, broken down and stitched together again.