St Etienne has always been masterful in their ability to convey emotion through their sonics. Their decades-long collaboration has produced engaging works winning them significant critical praise and a Mercury Award nomination. Their latest offering, I’ve Been Trying to Tell You, is slated for release on September 10th and examines human memory and dreams.
In creating the release, the trio specifically used the now seemingly blissful period of the ’90s as a background. That period when compared to our recent situation, the future was bright and shiny as Communism fell, New Labor had won, and democracy seemed to face no real struggles, well until 9/11 and all that followed.
St. Etienne was founded in 1990 by Bob Stanley, Peter Wiggs and vocalist Sarah Cracknell. Their music is renowned for offering up deep emotions, usually bittersweet, recalling that feeling of homesickness and longing for something that can never be recreated. With that as the measure, I’ve Been Trying to Tell You St Etienne again exceeds expectations. Conveyed throughout the release is the idea that human memory is unreliable and plays tricks. The sonics convey the fog of memory not through the nightmare but at first comfort and then the disoriented unsettled residue of dreams.
The members of St Etienne have always shown preeminence in the studio. Due to Covid, their abilities were put to the test as the new release was completely recorded remotely. Surprisingly the atmosphere of the Covid pandemic restrictions provides even more gravitas to the release.
I’ve Been Trying to Tell You opens with “Music Again”, a shimmering, ethereal track of seeming long-forgotten electric harpsichord sonics. The track sets the sonic structure of the “dream” and spotlights Cracknell’s vocals. “Pond House” is a funkier R&B track with a jungle rhythm underpinning. This swirling throwback to the 90’s ambient sound is hypnotic as it mirrors a deep dream state. “Fonteyn” harkens to Vapor wave. Please take notice of the small details that brilliantly build the track, as it opens up expansively at the halfway point, and Cracknell channels her inner Elizabeth Fraser with an excellent glossolalia vocal accompaniment. The track “Little K” is the centrepiece of the album with its snatched phrases and sparkling fairy tale feel. It is mesmerizing yet enervating, supporting the theme that there is no reason to pretend in your dreams, as you are fully exposed to your psyche. Throughout the playlist, the tracks segue seamlessly into each other, exactly like a sleeper’s dreams.
“Blue Kite” is an instrumental that opens with jumbled sonics as fluttering synths build cathedral-sized sunlit optimism. This spectacular effort shows the dedication to detail that St Etienne supplies throughout the release. My favourite track is “I Remember it Well,” which is the shortest song but is epic in impact. Snippets of memory are conveyed through a cacophony of voices and samples all indiscernible as they display the disconnect between life and dreams. The sonics recall the solemn gravity of Mogwai’s Wolverine.
Continuing the dream motif, “Penlop” has an industrial feeling in the opening while centring on the nonsense lyric, “I don’t really know you, but I would really like to show you Chester town.” The lyric symbolizes the common occurrence of those perplexing dreams where you wake up and spend the whole day attempting to figure out what the dream meant. The big sonic ending leads into the final track, “Broad River”, which is laden with palpable melancholy. The track winds down, becoming a glorious accompaniment to the end of Summer and the beginning of Autumn.
St Etienne with I’ve Been Trying to Tell You time travels back to the ’90s displaying a longing for what now seems a cloudless past of optimism. On the surface, the release seems easygoing but is deceptively complex. Tracks stick with you long after the last notes play out. The release is a respite from our Covid laden world as it ushers forth a hypnotic dream state allowing for a not inconsequential break from our current situation.
I’ve Been Trying to Tell You is a must-have for St. Etienne fans and certainly ownership worthy for the uninitiated. My only minor regret is I would have liked to have had more of haunting Cracknell’s vocals. I’ve Been Trying to Tell You displays a trio continuing to operate at the top of their game.