Yann Tiersen – Le Phare (1997)

From my point of view, Yann Tiersen’s music is as defining of the ’90 as Nirvana or The Prodigy, which is possibly slightly strange because of the many influences from decades past his songs incorporate. But, after all, the ’90s were the decade when postmodernism imploded, were they not, so it would make sense for an eclectic musician to be able to represent them so brilliantly. I realize he became known throughout the world mainly for his movie soundtracks, but I’m sorry to say the rigors of creating music for a film make it so that the music itself feels subservient in the end, feels enslaved by cinematic principles. Of course, there are exceptions (Kenji Kawai for example), but Yann Tiersen, although writing great music for Good bye Lenin! and so on, is not one of them. That’s why I chose to focus on “Le Phare”, his ’97 album, which contains my all-time favorite song of his.

Yann Tiersen straggles the line between pop/rock musician and classical composer. At times, this duality can come across as amusing, other times it seems like he’s not really sure what he really wants to do, but on Le Phare, he manages to present a compilation of songs which complement each-other perfectly in this bipolar context. The classical side of him was doing then what Philip Glass is doing now – minimalism with a pronounced neo-romantic vein pulsing through its temples. The pop musician side of him is positively enthralled with the wonderful waltz. This rhythm, the cadence of the waltz is probably one of the most beautiful creations of humanity, not from a dancer’s perspective but from the ear of a devotee of music. Counting in thirds and multiples of three is not something that comes naturally, it will always retain a certain alien, whimsical, delightful charm to me and it always keeps any song fresh, surprising and most of the times larger than life, sweeping. There’s an ingrained elegance in that cadence, which Yann Tiersen seems to be in love with, and I can definitely join him in this fascination.

The album shifts moods very often, ranging from frothy fiddle and accordion tunes fit for a sailor’s hootenanny to dark, brooding classical pieces which belong in a concert hall, and somehow it all mixes together spectacularly. How he manages to go from The Sailor’s Hornpipe to Rachmaninoff is beyond me, but that’s definitely what makes his music in general and this album in particular so special, especially if you take into consideration the sprinkle of radio-friendly non-instrumental pop tunes which show up here and there, like the famous Monochrome. In fact, I’m not even sure why I say “famous”. Is it? I can’t even speak for my country, not to mention the rest of the world, and yet it seems to me that is should be, it has no reason whatsoever not to be famous, or to have been famous when it was released. I guess that’s a bit of mystery about Yann Tiersen for me, I can’t really gauge his actual popularity, I can’t really figure out where he stands in the critic’s eye, whether he’s perceived as a niche musician/composer or as a French pop icon of the ’90s. Not that it matters all that much, but it seems to complement the division in his own style.

And yet, in spite of all the shifting and switching and prestidigitation, I feel the album is formidably cohesive. There’s a sadness, both mundane and poetic, which permeates the music, which gives it depth and emotional eloquence, a sadness underlined both by the rather archaic, raggedy-sounding instrumentation, the often baritone, mournful voices employed and especially by the almost bleak piano which kicks in at precisely the right moment, every time. The music is amazingly controlled in it’s parade while somehow keeping a fantastic spontaneity, like a shroud around itself. It’s music for fall, for rain in December (like today), for failing light and for the sparks flying out of the fire.

I really hope you enjoy this album as much as I have throughout the years. See you tomorrow!

P.S. – “Sur le fil” is a seven minute track on the album, built around a theme initially played on the violin and then taken over by the piano. For some unknowable reason, I haven’t been able to find any version of the complete track on YouTube, and the sites I did find it on had horrible embed codes that didn’t work. My own upload of the complete track was apparently banned by EMI, at least in my country, bless their hearts. So I had to give in and post it in its two parts, readily available. It feels like a bit of a conspiracy – “Apart, they are manageable and we don’t care what you do, but join them, and we’ve got a problem…” Odd.

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