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'Good Humor': Saint Etienne snyth-pop album turns 25

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Leader singer Sarah Cracknell with Saint Etienne at Glastonbury (Screenshot via YouTube)

None more so than the classic 'Good Humor', Saint Etienne albums are witty almanacs of urban culture and relationships, set to winning beats, writes Stephen Saunders.

SWIMMING AGAINST a sombre tide of shoegaze bands, English synth-pop savants Saint Etienne blossomed in the 1990s, culminating in their Good Humor album of May 1998.

Despite being a huge Buffalo Springfield fan, I disliked Neil Young solo albums of the early 1970s. Then, in 1990, Saint Etienne released its first single: a beguiling alternative-dance makeover of ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart'. I loved the song and the band.

Setting aside compilation and remix albums, the Etienne trio (Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell) has made ten studio albums in 30 years. The most recent was 2021.

Good Humor, the fourth, has had several reissues since 2010.

Directly upon its release, I thought it the best Etienne album. Still do. They toured it through England, the USA and Canada in 2018. The New York show at Bowery Ballroom attracted young and old, cool and square. Most of us knew the songs.

In Good Humor's liner notes, Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland endorsed Etienne as:

'...utterly metropolitan and effortlessly clean… love without blame and hope without conditions.'

Metropolitan is right. They’ve always found joy and humour in all aspects of English city and suburbia. Not so sure about the no-blame part. 

The brisk percussion and dance beats of Sylvie tinge romance with jealousy.

Playing the older lover, a breathy Cracknell ticks off a younger poacher:

Well you’ve come a long way since September

But Sylvie you oughta remember

You know he’s mine.'

In the optimistic dance lounge of Been So Long, there’s a real chance old love can kindle anew:

Pretending nothing has changed here

But strangely familiar tracks are falling

You came without a warning.'

While an urban Split Screen apartment is the starting point for a jazzy escape from a tired relationship:

'Goodbye to the tower blocks

Last look at the town I’m leaving…

Now I really don’t care

'Cause I’m dying to get the sun in my hair.'

Love turns to betrayal in the wintry streetscape ofPostman:

All done so I clocked off early

Walked down our street

Oh no, oh no, do I really deserve this

Silhouette at the window.'

And turns to outright murder, in the spiky keyboard figurings of ‘Goodnight Jack’:

'Behind the wheel of my Capri

It seems like no one’s noticed me

And now you’re coming out from work

And deep inside I feel so hurt.'

By 1998, Saint Etienne had seen the world and was just about ready to settle down and have little Etiennes. Which is what they did.

Their 2005 concept album, Tales From Turnpike House, featured a bonus children’s album, Up The Wooden Hills. My young daughter liked the tunes.

Back in 1998, their songs were cosmopolitan.“Never write a love song, [counsels their cryptic Wood Cabin sketch] never write a trip-hop.”

Offset by tinkling keyboards,Dutch TV is their high-res snapshot of a seedy night abroad:

'One night in Neverland

Checking out the Amsterdam scene

Got a room from some old guy

Outside the Rocking Machine.'

Best of all, Mr Donut finds Cracknell playing the languid Englishwoman, pining away in America:

MTV is on another dreary song

twenty after two and I’m at a loss

‘Cause the hotel bar is closed

I walk across the road

Sound of Radio Boston makes me smile

And in a while it’s

Ooh, another coffee yeah.

None more so than this one, Saint Etienne albums are witty almanacs of urban culture and relationships, set to winning beats.

But wait, there’s more! Do check out muso-cum-journo Stanley’s alternative pop histories: Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! (2015) and the prequel Let’s Do It (2020).

Stephen Saunders is a former public servant, consultant and 'Canberra Times' reviewer. He is on the Sustainable Population Australia Executive Committee.

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