This year has been hard on the guitar. If Decca Records had said, “Guitar groups are on their way out” in 2012 rather than 1962, it would have seemed a lot more reasonable. A few of this year’s best albums have shown the instrument used impressively, and the most enjoyable guitar solo of the year was played by John Mayer on Frank Ocean’s “White.” But for what 2012 has lacked in guitars, it has made up for in synthesizers.
Synthesizers have completely overshadowed guitars in 2012. Along with Frank Ocean proving to be as talented with synthesizers as he is with samples, Ellie Goulding’s “Lights,” a synthpop song worthy of the ’80s, exploded on the charts. Then, as if those examples weren’t enough, two older synthpop bands, Pet Shop Boys and Saint Etienne, released their best albums in years.
Pet Shop Boys’ “Elysium” was released in September. It is their best and most consistent album since the 1996 “Bilingual,” but it’s missing a classic Pet Shop Boys song. No tracks on “Elysium” compare to “West End Girls,” “Go West” or “Se a vida é,” even though those songs are among their best.
But Saint Etienne’s album, “Words and Music by Saint Etienne,” released in May, doesn’t have a problem with supplying classic songs. The group, made up of vocalist Sarah Cracknell and keyboardists Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs, has released eight albums in their 22-year career. Out of those, “Words and Music” may be the best of all of them. It’s easily the most consistent, with a lack of unmemorable tracks and near-perfect flow between them. But even though the songs are great, what really sells the album is the concept: music, and everything wonderful about it.
Many artists have used music as a concept for their songs. Madonna had an album called “Music,” which featured a song about music called “Music.” Some people might be against that kind of thing, because of course a musician cares about music. That’s why they’re musicians. But, doesn’t it deserve to be celebrated? Stanley and Wiggs are both former music journalists, so they are both fit to write songs about the joy of music. But on “Over the Border,” the opening track, Cracknell sings about her love of music and its impact on her life with such passion that the two men have no choice but to tone it down.
It’s often said that music says what words cannot, but no sounds that those synthesizers are capable of making can top Cracknell’s brilliant spoken-word on this opener. “I had my mocks a month later/But I just wanted to listen to Dexys, New Order, anything on Postcard,” she recites. “A few weeks and I’d be free/A few weeks and music wouldn’t have to be so private/It would be there for me/It would be there for me/And when I was married, and when I had kids/Would Marc Bolan still be so important?”
After “Over the Border,” Stanley and Wiggs vamp up a bit, with Cracknell toning it down. The point could be made that the music should do the talking, but an album full of songs like “Over the Border” would be just fine, as long as it continued to be that sincere and true about the topic.
Cracknell must have realized that that kind of sincerity is rare, because the rest of the album is very musical. Between the house-esque “I’ve Got Your Music” and the minimalist hooks of “Last Days of Disco” and “When I Was Seventeen,” there are enough synthlines here to convince the harshest music cynic that pop music has a lot of originality still left.
Cracknell still presents some great lines. “Round and round it goes/I’ve got your music,” “All I wanna hear about is touch me, touch me” and “Close your eyes to the DJ/Close your eyes and fade away” are the lyrical hooks that memories are made of. The lyrics to “Last Days of Disco” even manage to sum up the connection we all have to music and how, as Madonna put it, it makes us come together. This is definitely a lyrical album, even though the music often sticks out more than the words.
Along with being Saint Etienne’s best album, “Words and Music by Saint Etienne” is one of the most underrated records of this year. A concept album about music; the music on this album says more about it than any critic ever could. Pop music is as alive as it ever was, and it’s still at its best when celebrating itself.
Key Tracks: “When I Was Seventeen,” “Over the Border,” “Last Days of Disco,” “Answer Song” and “I’ve Got Your Music.”