The island of Ushant, or Ouessant, is defined by its remoteness. Perched off the coast of Brittany at the point where the Atlantic Ocean meets the English Channel, this windswept rocky outcrop has a place in the literary imagination (it’s mentioned by Orwell, Forester and Prévert among others), and is the location of the Créac’h lighthouse, said to be one of the world’s most powerful, although it wasn’t bright enough to stop the Amoco Cadiz oil carrier running aground in 1978, bringing ecological disaster to its shores. The isle is home to just 900 people, one of them being Yann Tiersen, the Breton composer (though “composer” is a term he tends to shun) whose work rose to prominence through its use on the soundtrack to Amelie.
All of this background isn’t mere biographical filler, because Tiersen’s eighth studio album, Infinity, is inseparably tied to the place in which it was conceived. It’s partly inspired by “Ar Maen Bihan,” a short story in Breton (a strikingly similar language to fellow surviving Brythonic tongues Welsh and Cornish) by writer Emilie Quinquis aka Tiny Feet. The story gives its name to one instrumental track here and, for another, is translated into Icelandic as “Steinn” by Sigur Rós collaborators Amiina, who know a thing or two themselves about living on a rocky outcrops (the album was partly recorded in their native Iceland).
Indeed, this is — in every sense other than the musical — a “rock” record: Stones are a recurring subject, and one upon which Aidan Moffat of Arab Strap (in English) and Tiersen band member Ólavur Jákupsson (in Faroese) have both contributed tracks. Moffat’s metaphorical monologue “Meteorite,” a spoken-word it’s-now-or-never entreaty to an unnamed object of lust, closes the album and is among its finest moments, though it’s rivalled for that honour by “Midsummer Evening,” a glorious piece of psych-pop in the vein of MGMT or the Polyphonic Spree.
It’s an album that, like the places that inspired it, seems to face the hostile headwinds of the elements with indomitable, intrepid optimism. The charming clatter and clank of tinny toy instruments (a frequent feature of Tiersen’s work) is deployed not in the cutesy, twee manner you’d expect, but to add a fragile sparkle and twinkle to surging orchestral arrangements beneath, like whitecap waves on a crisp winter day. Infinity is, if not quite out-of-this-world, then — like the isolated Ushant itself — somewhere at the edge of it.