Composer Yann Tiersen likes to play around in a variety of languages. Whenever he has a new collection of songs to unleash, you never know if they will be sung in English, French, Breton, Faroese, or if they will be completely instrumental but will still make references to far away places that we can only gawk at via Google Images. His previous release EUSA was a sample of the last option, while ALL casts the net wider still. To be clear, Tiersen is perfectly happy with the title being ambiguous. On the one hand, it is Breton for “others”. On the other hand, he admits that he likes “the title’s double meaning, this holistic view towards things”.
If you’re unfamiliar with Tiersen’s work, it’s comfortably nestled between neoclassical and new age, too carefree to be the former while somehow being too formal to be the latter. Most of ALL is piano-driven but relies on many additional bells and whistles to supply more than just texture. Then there are the field records, the ever ubiquitous field recordings that appear to be so relevant to the context of the music that you would think the whole project would fall apart without them. Reading ALL‘s press release, you’d get the idea that using the ambient noise that surrounds a decommissioned German airport would be wholly necessary for the album’s opener “Tempelhof”.
The English translation of some song titles like “Far” or “Wood” give only cryptic clues. The lyrics, sung by Anna Von Hausswolff, Ólavur Jákupsson, Denez Prigent, Emilie Tiersen, Gaëlle Kerrien, and a choir, are written in a language that is understood by only 200,000 people in the whole wide world. ALL sure does have all the makings of a big, brainy show, but two simple key factors make it easy for the listener to overlook all of this. One is the strength of Yann Tiersen’s writing and the other is the arranging and execution thereof by everyone else involved. Language barrier be damned, ALL just sounds great.
ALL stretches over an hour in length and most of its dynamic hangs low at a hushed, subdued level. Even when multiple percussion toys are introduced to “Bloavezhioú” (“Years”), a haunting number where a chorus of voices counts from one to 111, they are soft and gentle. When the choir makes its entrance on “Erc’h” (“Snow”), the dynamic barely shifts. It is difficult to select a high point from ALL‘s 11 tracks since each and every one sounds like it was written to be the final say at the end of a long, epic life, but I may stake my claim on “Beure Kentañ” (“First Morning”). As the tonic chord and its relative minor gingerly seesaw back and forth, a reverb-tinged instrument calibrated for ambient music (a guitar, perhaps?) sighs between two notes. A female voice reads a 1968 poem by Diwar Lusian Loarer. Again, every track sounds like a last gasp, but “Beure Kentañ” does nicely as the real thing.
For an album that is so geographically and linguistically focused, ALL is strangely beautiful when robbed of all its context.