The French composer Yann Tiersen has fused rock and classical (or “new”) music since he arrived nearly full-formed in 1995, predating indie rock’s obsession with composerly fare by almost a decade. And his soundtrack to the 2001 film Amelie was probably one of the first that young indie-loving English majors from Florida to Oregon purchased of their own accord, as girls and guys alike fell hard for Audrey Tautou and Tiersen’s vibrant motifs with equal vigor. Though post-“Alternative Nation” indie fans tend to see 2004’s Garden State as the moment when our secret got out, Amelie’s impact can’t be ignored: How else to at least partly explain the then-impending popularity of Sufjan Stevens and Arcade Fire, or even Beirut? The slacker-rock ‘90s were giving way to softer, more earnest tastes in the new century, a movement we’re now seeing challenged by hardcore-indebted acts like Perfect Pussy. But to travel back a decade-plus is to see that forest-green DVD case with bold yellow type on nearly every shelf of the newly cultured millennial, and Tiersen’s soundtrack was greeted with almost as much excitement as the film itself.
Still, occasionally students rise above their teachers, and on Infinity, Tiersen’s eighth album, one senses the composer’s subtle attempt to reclaim some of the ground taken by string-heavy behemoths like Stevens and his contemporaries in the past decade. This isn’t the album’s entire thesis (more on that in a second), but a too-firm nod to his younger peers is woven through nearly half of Infinity, consciously or not. “Midsummer Evening,” “Lights,” and “The Crossing,” while not totally bereft of intriguing left-field impulses, ultimately feel like parodies of the mid-aughts indie/classical milieu: Melodies are muddied, the instrumentation is overwrought, and the emotional appeal is lost amid the pall. The songs aren’t bad; you’ve just heard better versions of them before, and probably too recently. For a rock fan, it’s a strange sensation to actively hope that drums and guitars stay out of the way—on Infinity, at least, their arrival typically augurs something less affecting than what we’ve come to expect from Tiersen throughout his notable career.
Fortunately the composer shines most everywhere else. Infinity’s drone-y, Caretaker-esque moments are its best, a reminder that Tiersen is just as comfortable sussing out eerie, meditative hues as playful, childlike ones. He never stays in one place for long, though, making Infinity less a collection of songs than an impressionistic canvas topped with moments both dissonant and beautiful. The trick is making the two modes work in tandem, and for the most part Tiersen succeeds, recalling Bradford Cox’s recent foray into film work (in fact, the ghost of Atlas Sound’s debut abounds here) and Stevens’ lurch back to electronic music on The Age of Adz. Tiersen is masterful when he exploits the fine line between his cerebral and nourishing sides.
At times, even on its better tracks, Infinity suffers from the weight of its own ambitions, obscuring great ideas in a wash of obstinate noise wrought by too many instruments in the mix—synths, drums, piano, guitars, strings, bells, marimba, multi-tracked voices, etc. all competing for space and with too many effects applied to boot. But more often Tiersen evokes a feeling that reminds us why his early work was so special, like having had just enough drinks to see only the best in people. “Infinity, “Greenworld” and the sanguine closer “Meteorite” represent the best examples of this, the latter’s Scottish-sounding spoken-word narrator relaying observations of “rom-com” love from micro and then macro levels—here’s a couple making out in a telephone booth; here’s what puppy love looks like from hundreds of miles above the earth’s atmosphere. The monologue would be awfully campy if it didn’t have such a fine soundtrack, but sometimes that’s all we need to take ourselves a smidgen less seriously. Tiersen excels when he’s less self-conscious too.