Friday, December 06, 2002
My attempts to write about Saint Etienne's Tiger Bay in any great detail precipitates a rather insistent and long-lasting writer's block, which is odd or perhaps fitting considering that in its extended European-release form it is possibly my favourite album ever. What I can say is that one of my most vivid memories of last year is being holed up at home with tonsillitis for almost two weeks, missing far too many torts law classes but not really caring - I had my cups of lemon and ginger tea, a sundrenched couch by the window and the recently purchased Tiger Bay playing on repeat. The eye within a storm of activity, time passed with a glorious lassitude that renders it in retrospect a good deal pleasanter than it actually was - at least from the vantage point of the mountain of commitments I've accrued in the time since.

This slice of time-outside-time (no classes, no student politics, no social engagements, a necessarily restricted lovelife) perhaps coloured my perception of Tiger Bay: what I return to endlessly with these songs is their sense out-of-timeness - even the most superficially "modern" pieces feel like artifacts, flawless constructions unearthed from another age that would crumble to dust at the slightest breath of air. Stanley and Wiggs call it their "techno-folk" album, which makes sense to me; this is part archaeology, part travelogue, a roadmap and an excavation of emotional terrain held suspended, ossified by bad choices, words left unsaid, questions unanswered. Saint Etienne inhabit their characters, but they also struggle with them, and sigh at their intractability - Sarah's angelic empathy refuses none, but its endless capacity is itself a gentle rebuke. Sarah's vocals here - particularly on "He's On The Phone", "Former Lover" and "Marble Lions" - are the best of her career, her graceful intensity reminding me of Mrs Ramsey from Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse (or rather, when I read the book Mrs Ramsey reminded me of Sarah), combining deepness and blankness, transparency and opacity so seamlessly, reflecting back perfectly all the desire and doubt you pour onto and into her, and yet remaining essentially unknowable.

For an album that means so much to me, Tiger Bay leaves me with little sense of an emotional investment in Saint Etienne itself - a curious fact that can be seen not in how much I love the preceding albums (both very much if you were wondering, especially So Tough) but in how little their subsequent albums suffer from the burden of my expectations. Objectively, the desiccated lounge-pop Good Humour is almost a betrayal of everything that Tiger Bay stands for, made worse by the fact that it indicts Tiger Bay by implication (for there is a discernible trajectory that can be traced through the group's early work, ultimately arriving at this point). It's also an abject lesson in how not to make a Saint Etienne album, finally demonstrating irrefutably how little cynicism and irony infects the group's other work by being their only album that is steeped in them. I say objectively because the album's existence doesn't bother me in the slightest, and I think all the singles, especially "The Bad Photographer", are pretty fab (ironically Good Humour, despite being their bid for pop-revivalism credibility, is their only album that justifies the "Saint Etienne = singles band" misconception).

Onwards then to Places To Visit, which I haven't actually heard in full, but is nonetheless worth mentioning for the snap-back-into-place brilliance of "We're In The City" and "Sadie's Anniversary", two songs which strike me as the closest the group have ever come to capturing themselves as themselves. "We're In The City" is chilly house-pop at its more brittle - a desert-like expanse of desolation seems to exist between each kickdrum pulse and hi-hat swish, while the melody is paired back to nothing, just a barely-there bassline, lonely-sounding beeps and ghostly synth vapour. Sarah is at her most precise and evasive, a bodiless presence that infuses the song, surrounds it, not in the city but of the city, creeping up through drainpipes and cracks in the pavement. "Sadie's Anniversary" is of the sort of morose ballad that the group could easily spend their entire career exploring, beats be damned. "One year to the day, since you put on the night; one year to the day that you shot out the light" Sarah begins mysteriously, and it seems fitting that the song has taken a year to emerge - Saint Etienne always worked best with love's gentle ebb and flow rather than its raging torrents, and Sadie's convalescence creates a sadness akin to diamond, beautiful in its hardened and perfect rigidity. "I'll never say those words again," she sighs, "no, not to anyone...that matters," and it's the qualification that makes her declaration gripping, suggestive of not a heart broken but rather a heart forever denied its full potential, a heart resigned to a grayer and less truthful life from this moment onwards.

I suspect that Sound of Water, an album which I only discovered recently, has a mixed reputation because it forces the resisting fan to confront the group's increasing distaste for emotional absolutes; put simply, there's nothing here to match the sheer uncomplicated joy of "Nothing Can Stop Us" or "I Was Born On Christmas Day". Why should there be? There's so much emotional terrain still left to explore, terrain that requires more caution, more reflection, more hesitancy. To make it harder for the reluctant listener, the emotional terrain that Sound of Water does in fact explore is every shade of wistfulness and not much more, its greatest extremes being the rich lugubriousness of "Heart Failed (In The Back Of A Taxi)" (the group's house-pop at its most frigid and most sumptuous) and the glorious reverie of "Sycamore", the album's peak and one of Saint Etienne's finest moments period.

What I find stunning here is the sheer power that the group summon up in the service of such a gentle, undemonstrative feeling: the harpsichord lurches like the world is dropping out from beneath it while Sarah sings "na na na na, na na na na" unconcernedly, almost distractedly, and then the world does fall away, into a snow-scattered void of awe-filled sighs, majestic, mysterious. "I'm thinking of Ben," Sarah coos so lightly, "I'm thinking of your new green dress," so lightly in fact that her words seem to drift across the music like bubbles, "I saw it unfold, unwrapping..." Is this maturity? To be so intensely centered and aware of oneself that even the slightest modulations of emotion spark off slowly ripples of sonic seratonin, even at the instigation of simple memories, half-remembered scents, allusions? The rest of the album contents itself to operate within the borders established by these aforementioned "extremes", and while I consider the walk through the shadowed-but-prosperous valley between these two peaks to be exceedingly pleasant, I can at least understand the reticence of others. It is, to be sure, the group's most underrated album.

Next up: I tackle Finisterre.


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