The studio is where the group is most at home; in fact, Stanley doesn't even like to tour with the group anymore. In a guitar band that might be a problem, but Saint Etienne writes and creates on the computer. It's a pop band, but without the instruments -- Cracknell owns three guitars but can't play any of them.
For Saint Etienne, sensibility is everything and subject matter is immaterial. "Downey, CA" is a song named for the Carpenters' hometown, a city the trio has never visited. (Leave it to a Brit to stick palm trees in Downey.) These are songs about imaginary places, where hearts fail in the back seats of taxis and people find themselves just a little overcome. Meanwhile, synthesized notes echo subtly in the background, like raindrops.
The album's title seems to be an underlying theme, flowing from song to song. In the nine-minute opus "The Way We Used to Live," the chorus ("Sail away ... sail away") is backed by a rippling sound that evokes oars or hands dipping into the center of a lake. It's a sad sound, and the song seems gripped by an irresistible melancholy until midway through the fourth minute, when it turns around; suddenly, you're in the mid-'80s again, coasting around a roller rink to a sparkly beat. Yet the change doesn't feel jarring, just playful: It's what Saint Etienne does best.
Sound of Water, which was arranged with the help of German electronic artist To Rococo Rot and the High Llamas' Sean O'Hagan, is full of contradictions, being both moodier and airier than past efforts. Maybe that's the point. Instead of making a bid to conquer the world, the album announces that the band is happy just where it is.