Eusa by Yann Tiersen (Mute records. Out now)
Review by Ian Preece
When you’re young and stupid solo piano records seem faintly absurd. All that manic focus, concentration and dramatic pain-wracked posture ‒ hovering over certain keys, pounding others. No good comes of it: things turn out like they do in Thomas Bernhard’s book about Glenn Gould, The Loser (obsession, insomnia, ranting in the conservatoire, suicide). If the great existentialist poet Fernando Pessoa hadn’t dismissed the entire medium of recorded music as mere frivolity, you suspect he’d have been listening to solo piano records, standing smoking cigarettes at his window, surveying the rooftops of Lisbon under moonlight whilst pondering the great truths (‘life would be unbearable if we were truly conscious of it’) and mournful couplets (‘I’m sad, but not with a definite or even an indefinite sadness. My sadness is out there, in the street strewn with boxes’) that came to be collected in The Book of Disquiet. Life flashes by: one minute you’re searching for cavernous spaces of dub in the basement of some dark drum & bass club; the next you have tomato plants in one hand and Harold Budd’s elegiac double LP of solo piano Perhaps tucked under the other arm.
For a man who took his time to realise that an arpeggio wasn’t a string of islands, a conservatoire doesn’t have glass walls – and who certainly wouldn’t know a crotchet from a quaver – probably my favourite two records this summer have been piano albums: Jean-Michel Blais’s ecstatic II, and Christine Ott’s beautifully spooked apocalyptic LP of piano, ondes martenot and Apollo 11 recordings, Only Silence Remains. Ott, oddly enough, has played the ondes martenot on several of her fellow countryman Yann Tiersen’s albums.
So now, as the leaves start to fall, the wind gets up and the sun is paler, it seems right to be listening to the mournful single notes of ‘Hent I’, or watching the rain bucket down accompanied to the exquisite cascading piano of ‘Pern’ ‒ both tracks from Breton pianist Tiersen’s new LP, Eusa (the Breton name for the island of Ushant off the coast of Brittany).
These tracks are each typical of the two strands of the album. Running not quite alternately, the sparser vignettes of ‘Hent’ (versions ‘I to VIII’) offer intervals of probing improvised piano that are pathways (‘Hent’ means ‘path’ in English) backwards and forwards across the wind-battered outpost that is now Tiersen’s home. Layered in the background are electronically treated field recordings from Ushant that often spill over into the openings of the more mellifluous, rolling piano sketches which make up the ten original pieces of the LP – all denoting a specific location with their own map co-ordinates on the island – and which are, by contrast, more fully rounded and less open-ended. The ‘Hent’ numbers are interesting sketches and fragments; the winsome melody of a track like ‘Yuzin’ is typical of the more cinematic moments: dappled autumn sunlight flickering through the blinds.
Tiersen has schlepped from continent to continent, selling out concert halls around the world, largely after finding international fame off the back of the soundtrack to the film Amélie (2001). The anthemic guitars and production of Dust Road (2010) and the Gallic pomp of tracks like ‘Loin des Villes’ and ‘La Boulange’ from 2005’s Les Retrouvalles feel a lifetime away, now that he seems to have found peace amongst the dirt tracks, wild bracken and black sheep of Ushant. There’s no accordion, no violin on Eusa; just piano. Gökmen Bliss’s promotional film for the piece ‘Porz Goret’ pretty much captures it all. There’s a heaviness to the sky and a grey sheen to the water ‒ both reflected in the dark wood of the piano set up in a field. Yann ambles into the shot – after what looks to have been a heavy night with the local fishermen – sits down, and begins to play. It would be stretching it to say that four minutes later the sun comes out, but – well – I think the world is a better place for having seen this film and heard the beautifully hesitant melody unfurl.
The magnificent ‘Penn ar Lann’, later in the album, works in a similar way. There’s a glassy heft, a huge autumnal swell in the early lines, then a sense of delay before the wave breaks triumphantly on the shore in the last 30 seconds or so, crows cawing in stormy skies in the background.
I thought I could hear the crows in the closing moments of ‘Porz Goret’ too, though listening back I realise it was a blackbird crowing outside, lauding it from a nearby chimney. I’ve made this mistake repeatedly listening to Eusa, so subtly are the treated field recordings woven in. Traffic, the muffled clatter of a nearby tube line, the drone of aircraft (not so) high above, circling to land . . . all intermingle with the far off rumbling of what you fear/imagine could be the hum of distant nuclear power plants inland on ‘Hent V’. There’s a moment in the promo film of ‘Roc’h ar Vugale’, recorded in the studio at Abbey Road, where the piano drops out and the camera flashes to the control desk. For a few seconds, it sounds like the tape spool becomes mangled, before the second half of the song peels away: a descending refrain that eventually circles back to the beginning, closing out with a momentary snatch of ambient static. That interlude early on doesn’t feature on the finished track. I’d have kept it in, just introduced a shade more gentle dissonance here and there, a bit like the clothed keys that dampen Nils Frahm’s Felt to such great effect. But maybe that’s just the old electronic noise head in me – the track is lovely anyway. And if you listen to the album properly, not on the tube or in the car, but on headphones and a good stereo at home, you can pick up Tiersen’s field recordings made on the island, electronically manipulated into that subtle drone back in the studio. There’s an almost metallic scree at the end of ‘Penn ar Roc’h’, and even birdsong itself (sparrows or blue-tits rather than cormorants, I’d guess) behind the keys of ‘Hent IV’.
Strangely enough, live in Rough Trade East the other night, the background hiss did seep through the speakers louder than it feels on the record. Tiersen performed pretty much the whole record to a rapt audience with an average age of about 27. Clearly young people today are not so stupid.