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In Rotation: St. Etienne's 'Words and Music by St. Etienne'

A series in Sunday Calendar about what Times writers and contributors are listening to right now...

July 09, 2012|By Randall Roberts | Times Pop Music Critic
  • In Rotation: St. Etienne's new album, "Words and Music by St. Etienne."
In Rotation: St. Etienne's new album, "Words and Music by St.…

St. Etienne
“Words and Music by St. Etienne”
Casablanca/Universal

Earlier this year when Madonna, 53, released her middling, trend-chasing dance pop record “MDNA,” one of the major criticisms was her seeming disinterest in making music for her own generation, or in dealing honestly with life after 50 and the ways in which she’s adjusting to middle age. If she has any aesthetic guts left -- “MDNA” suggests she doesn’t -- she’d be well advised on her next album to collaborate with singer-lyricist Sarah Cracknell and the long-running British dance pop trio she’s been part of for the last two decades, St. Etienne. Their smart, graceful new album, “Words and Music by St. Etienne,” offers a perfect model for making dance music after the need for a good night’s sleep eclipses the drive for all-night hedonism.

The group, which rose in England as the budding early-1990s rave scene was maturing, has over the course of eight albums treaded a steady, catchy course that offers electronic pop music in its most structured form, with a verse-chorus-verse exuberance that harnesses dance music to create joy. After 22 years, these structures have solidified a little, but Cracknell’s fearless lyricism hasn’t. Where she once sang about nightlife and its allure, she’s now willing to reflect on those times with a distance that’s not so much about remaining forever young as expressing the wonder of having lived through it and survived. Where Madonna’s still onstage teasing kids with veiled drug references, Cracknell is reminiscing about her experiences, about “using the Top of the Pops as my world atlas” and “reading Smash Hits and Record Mirror, Paul Morley and the NME.”

Throughout the record, Cracknell’s unafraid to address getting older; “Twenty Five Years” is about the reality of her mortality. “When I Was 17” bounces along like a lost synth-pop classic as she sings about the days when her heart was full of brilliant dreams and she’d “simmer in the light of a day that seemed so far away.” Much of the album focuses on the power of music and the ways in which it changes meanings as we experience life. “The spirit’s in the air, it’s like the tunes are everywhere,” she sings, recollecting a night when a young lover’s affection was sealed over new 45s. Now every time she hears the music she’s taken back: “It goes much further than the tune/When every record in the room made me feel haunted,” she sings on “Haunted Jukebox.” The best of “Words and Music” will conjure similar feelings.

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