One gets the impression that Yann Tiersen has spent much of his career trying to distance himself from the music that most people, or at least most Americans, know him for. Back in 2001 everybody was pumping the Amélie soundtrack, myself included. Who didn’t find themselves at some point in the early aughts waltzing around their living room on a bright spring morning while the accordions and violins that formed the backdrop of Amélie blared out of the stereo? Many people never bothered to dig any deeper or wait to see what this impressive Breton musician came up with next, but those of us who did soon realized that there was far more to Yann Tiersen than cute accordion ditties. When one sinks deeply into records like 2001’s L’Absente, 1996’s Rue des Cascades or 2011’s Skyline, the listener discovers a musical world steeped in subtly, texture, vibrancy, and melancholy. Perhaps the adjective that best describes Tiersen’s music is atmospheric; his music seems to manifest itself physically around the listener, immersing her completely.
Tiersen’s new record ∞ is a perfect example of his tendency towards the atmospheric and it is one of his strongest records to date. You hear the chilly wind of the North Sea whipping around this music, and you can almost feel your scarf fluttering about your head. My press release, which I typically ignore, tells me that Tiersen lives on a remote rocky Breton island, and that much of ∞ was recorded in Iceland, but the listener does not even really need to be told this. The music itself conjures up images of dark, foreboding seascapes and rocky crags, with large, exotic seabirds, albatrosses perhaps, swooping around the notes. Tracks like “Slippery Stones” and “Lights” conjure images of fishing vessels and lonely island piers stinking of sea salt and brine, while distant lights that could be either lighthouses or beckoning mermen of some kind blink and twinkle on the periphery.
The presence of Icelandic and Faroese musicians is very evident on ∞. Anyone familiar with the music of Múm or Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson will hear that special Icelandic quality right away, and the influence serves Tiersen’s distinctive sound very well. Over the course of the last three decades or so, Icelandic musicians have become specialists in electro-acoustic music, fusing warm synthetic sounds with Western classical and folk traditions to great effect. Tiersen has been straining towards an electro-acoustic marriage of this kind for some time, and he seems to have really hit the nail on the head with ∞. On his previous release, 2011’s Skyline, Tiersen presented a dense wall of synthesizers that, while excellent, did not sound much like his earlier work. On ∞, Tiersen sounds both like the musician that made Skyline and the musician who created the Amélie soundtrack. The results are dark, hauntingly beautiful, and multi-textured.
I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Yann Tiersen and his band perform live on their last North American tour in support of Skyline. Although I have been a fan of Tiersen’s music for many years and had high hopes for the show, I was taken aback at the sheer energy and intensity of his live performance. Live, Tiersen and his band sound more like Mogwai or Tortoise than the sometimes delicate, classically influenced music that appears on much of his recorded output. I plan on seeing him again in June when he comes to Seattle and I suspect that the material on ∞ will come across marvelously well live. This stuff is driving, gorgeous stuff that paints vivid murals in the listener’s head, while violins, synthesizers, and multi-language vocals swirl and swoop. No one making music today merges the worlds of popular music, experimental music, Western classical music, and European folk music as expertly as Yann Tiersen and ∞ is one of his most fully realized projects.