Most recent French pop, from the likes of Air and Daft Punk, has tended to choke on its own air of smug irony, this being perhaps the current manifestation of the lack of passion that habitually afflicts French rock'n'roll. No such reservations apply to Yann Tiersen, leading light of the new "neo-realist" movement whose music seeks to reinvigorate the country's classic pop traditions – accordion music, chanson, even the pop-classical heritage of Satie and Debussy – by subtly blending it with electronics, world music, contemporary classical, and some discreet avant-garde elements.
The results are best known to British audiences from the soundtrack to Amélie, the music for which was drawn from Tiersen's first four albums. Unapologetically French, but intriguingly fresh and modern, it provided the perfect musical equivalent to the film's affectionate love-note to Paris. L'Absente is, if anything, even more quintessentially French, evoking a spirit not so much of place as temperament, particularly the existentialist-outsider temperament that has proven so attractive to British bohemians since the days of Sartre and Piaf and Tony Hancock's The Rebel. Despite the pathetic fallacy suggested by the CD booklet photos of empty streets lit by the soft glow from curtained windows, the music acknowledges that any perceived mood or atmosphere is always a function not of the place but of the individual's perception: it's the absence of humanity – l'absente (she that is absent) – that illuminates the mood, not the empty space itself.
Tiersen's method in tracks such as "A Quai", "Bagatelle" and "Qu'en reste-t-il?" shares some similarities with that of a minimalist composer such as Philip Glass, with frantically sawing strings and rapidly repeated ostinatos furnishing recurrent melodic motifs. Tracks build through accretion, with Tiersen himself often overdubbing vast batteries of instruments – countless keyboards, accordion, guitar, banjo, mandolin, vibes, etc. Like The Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt, he's also partial to such eccentric sound sources as typewriters, music boxes, and especially the ondes martenot, an early electronic instrument whose elegant theremin whine adds intrigue and mystery to several tracks.
Several vocalists bring Tiersen's lyrics to life, most notably Lisa Germano on "La Parade", which exudes an exquisite sense of alienation in lines like, "Sometimes I fill my skin/Sometimes I hear a voice/'Please try to be friendly'/But I'm too old inside". But, ironically, it's the Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon whose lyric to "Les Jours Tristes" best captures the stoic existential resignation of Tiersen's music, which sways from self-pity to hopeful resolve within a single chord-change, without altering the essential form or manner of the song. A delightful, enchanting album.
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