At the impressionable age of 13, an already well-studied Yann Tiersen broke his violin into pieces, bought a guitar, and started a rock band. For most of his life until that point, he’d studied classical music at illustrious French conservatories in Rennes, Nantes, and Boulogne, but, as evidenced on his sixth album, Dust Lane, Tiersen has a dissonant, punk rock streak that refuses to let his more urbane, highbrow training dominate his work. On record, fortunately, Tiersen’s colorful education — just as heavy on Chopin and Satie as it is on Nirvana and Television — doesn’t come together awkwardly or in a way that feels contrived. Rather, he’s acutely attuned to his strengths, emphasizing his classical, experimental, and pop writing capabilities at just the right moments, sometimes distinct from one another and others in tandem. Dust Lane, in particular, sees the composer leaning towards the latter, marrying the delicate feel of French folk and chamber music with discordant guitars, progressive rhythms, and the vintage glow of analog synths. To be sure, the combination is unlikely, but the results are striking.
During the two years that Tiersen recorded Dust Lane, he endured the death of his mother and a close friend, an experience that undoubtedly influenced the record’s tenor. This mourning certainly finds its way into the longing piano chords of the title track and the haunted, found sound swells and delayed accordions of “Dark Stuff”. More consistently, however, Tiersen adopts Emily Dickinson’s perspective that there is some manner of joy in death, a celebration of one’s life displacing the unending, morose bereavement of one’s passing. This tone is set immediately when the album-opening “Amy” builds from a subtle, electronic drone into a billowing, major-chord wave of acoustic guitars, strings, and a harmonizing, hopeful chorus, before relaxing into its gracefully spare coda. Similarly, on “Till the End”, Tiersen assembles a majestic cacophony of sounds, starting with a sample of cocktail pop from some lost era that bleeds into the stomp of drums, guitars, strings, and voices that together create a towering, overflowing ebullience that’s impossible not to get lost in.
Here, Tiersen wistfully finds a way to bare his soul without being overly earnest, a practice he implements throughout the record in moments light and dark. On “Palestine”, he repeatedly spells out the name of the tumultuous region in a crawling chant as ominous orchestration plays against angular, fuzzy guitars and the cascading tumble of vintage synths. According to Tiersen, his last tour before the Dust Lane sessions ended in Gaza City, a place he found to be ridden with death and injustice though nonetheless peering through with hope. Instead of derailing his meditations on mortality, then, the song enhances them, exposing beauty in political complexity at the same time it serves as a metaphor for the light/dark tension of his personal battles. For its part, the “personal” is explored poignantly on “Dust Lane”, which channels the epic progressivism of Godspeed You! Black Emperor with a studied, imminent finesse.
Dust Lane is not without its flaws, which surface mostly when Tiersen employs a talk/sing method at various points on the record. It should be noted that he can sing — see the whimsical, straightforward closer “Fuck Me” for proof — but the composer is at his best when he allows his music to speak for itself. To be sure, the layered choral pieces here are indispensable, but the monotone vocal drawl of “Palestine” and “Chapter 19″, particularly, is more distracting than useful. Ultimately, though, this is a passing grievance, a minor tiff with a collection that is one of the most affecting and ambitious of 2010. Indeed, in his grief, Tiersen found a way to marry the whims of the teen who shattered his violin with those of the astute composer that he’s become, a man who’s carefully discerning though no less exciting because of it.