Space and light and dreams: the best of Saint Etienne

As light as confectioner’s sugar, Saint Etienne’s best songs flirt with evanescence because pleasures and losses — life itself — are evanescent. Over a quarter century they have seen John Major, Britpop, the Euro, phones, and England itself ebb and flow while they have released albums that they have arranged, recorded, and mixed with the meticulousness of artisans. They have thrived in the shadow of irony: addicted to the adrenalized beats and verse-chorus-verse rigor of Europop without ever being trendy, Saint Etienne write songs about characters who follow fashion. Don’t misinterpret my deep affection for 1993’s b-side “Who Do You Think You Are” as a comment on the songwriting of Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs, and Sarah Cracknell, the latter remarkable for not being remarkable. She’s a hologram in human form; her thin breathy warmth embodies present-ness. In the spring of 2001, surely the most hedonistic period of my life, the steadiness with which Cracknell repeated “When the morning comes/and the snow is falling” on the atypical Paul van Dyk collaboration “Tell Me Why (The Riddle) was like a friend sharing an X trip.

Although So Tough is the consensus pick, wonderful songs dot every one of their releases; at their most lethargic their records become background music in clothing shoppes (I’ve heard The Sound of Water at Gap — hand over my heart). I’ve a fondness for 2002’s Finisterre, an austere and for them almost severe accounting of three decades of life. 2012’s Words and Music of Saint Etienne is even tougher. But Travel Edition: 1990-2005 is their statement, one of the glories of the western world.

Saint Etienne understand nostalgia needn’t congeal into sentimentality.

1. Who Do You Think You Are
2. Mario’s Cafe
3. Avenue
4. Only Love Can Break Your Heart
5. He’s On the Phone
6. Join Our Club
7. Tell Me Why (The Riddle) — w/Paul Van Dyk
8. Tonight (Extended Version)
9. Heart Failed in the Back of a Taxi
10. DJ
11. People Get Real
12. Pale Movie
13. Like a Motorway
14. Lose That Girl
15. Nothing Can Stop Us
16. Stop and Think It Over
17. You’re in a Bad Way
18. New Thing
19. Conchita Martinez
20. Finisterre
21. When I Was Seventeen
22. Out of My Mind
23. Calico
24. Boy is Crying
25. Hobart Paving

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