No matter what Yann Tiersen does, it’s plausible that he may never escape the slightly unapt spotlight cast on him for his bright, accordion-laden soundtrack for “Amélie.” Though a French musician, that soundtrack simultaneously catapulted Tiersen into minute fame while also typecasting him as a creator of archetypal Parisian music. What has followed is a move away from this cheeriness that bordered on the overexposed, instead sliding into a darker, more avant-garde musical style.
“Skyline,” his latest release on non-soundtrack work, is marked by the same abstract streak as 2010’s “Dust Lane,” whose track “Dark Stuff” seems to embody an almost post-apocalyptic look at the Paris aurally depicted in his “Amélie” soundtrack –– distorted guitar and a distant, echoing accordion summon feelings of dread and anxiety, an abject misery worthy of comparison to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited.” Disenchantment of previous releases aside, “Skyline” promises an equally abstract but perhaps more ethereal, airy look at Tiersen’s avant-garde attitude.
“Another Shore” opens the album with an instrumental, progressing into an incendiary, uplifted jam reminiscent of Explosions in the Sky or Built to Spill. Though abstract in small ways, these first few tracks provide a pleasant eccentricity. “I’m Gonna Live Anyhow,” the album’s second track, has an eponymous refrain expressed in breathy vocals. “Monuments” adds a few vocal effects onto these lyrical gasps, and the additional instrumentation of a few bells to accompany the celebratory, upward-winding twang of the lead guitar riff.
If Tiersen bleeds any from his work with film soundtracks into these experimental rock tracks, it’s an attention to detail and orchestration of many different unorthodox instruments; the bells in “I’m Gonna Live Anyhow” are one example, but the spectrum of ways Tiersen uses vocals on this album is so wide; from the kazoo-like mouth trumpet on “Anyhow” to the ping-ponging choral hits throughout “Monuments,” it’s clear that Tiersen’s various extended experience in songwriting has honed his abilities to a meticulous level of detail. From these details come a maturity in his writing, exhibited in how unpronounced or subtle some of these details are; refusing to flaunt in impressive, loud flourish is what makes these first few songs shine.
Halfway through the album, though, “Skyline” stumbles hard. “The Gutter,” the fourth of nine songs on the album, continues the trend set by the first three of being pleasantly abstract, but ends with an ominous violin cut, harsh discordance that foreshadows what is to come. “Exit 25 Block 20” begins with screaming that lasts throughout this disturbing sprint of a song. Primal, wild, these frenzied howls are juxtaposed by a toy piano and optimistic guitar riff, only adding to the odd discomfort of this track. Once the screaming stops, about halfway through the song, the album transitions the sprint into upbeat synth, but the album sadly does not recover immediately.
“Hesitation Wound” is an assault on the ears, not in the sense that it is as loudly troubling as “Exit 25,” but in that its eerie eponymous chant reverses any kind of positivity left in your ear canals by the similar effect on “I’m Gonna Live Anyhow.” The disturbing French-accented chorus chanting “hesitation wound” throughout the song is accompanied by an arpeggiated synth and a cold robotic voice backing up in frightening frigidity the sheer subliminal depression brought on by this song.
Though the album does spring back from this depression, the feelings of dread from the aforementioned disturbances in an otherwise pleasant album taint the experience for the rest of “Skyline.” So while “Vanishing Point” is really quite beautiful in its airy, synthetic sterility, one can’t quite help but be reminded in some of the nuances of Tiersen’s writing of the dangers that lurk beneath the cloud cover of these lighter songs. Like a Joy Williams short story (yes, another literary reference), these tracks neglect to show any real present danger –– but through the small metaphors and instrumentation choices, one can’t quite relax through the latter half of this album.
Rating: 3 out of 5