Four Tet moves forward by not really moving forward.
There are moments on Four Tet’s new record, Pink, that immerse the listener in the hypnotic, alien textures that many of us have come to expect from Kieran Hebden (a.k.a. Four Tet). But there are a good many others that cause the annoying, clichéd thought bubble “retro” to pop up in my mind, and as far as I am concerned, that is never a good thing. There is a huge difference between traditionalism or paying due respect to one’s honored forebears, and the ideas signified by the word “retro”. Retro implies a self-conscious mimicry of times gone by, a sort of costume party that feels inevitably empty and affected. There were more than a few moments during my first several perusals of Pink when I thought to myself, “Gosh, the Future Sound of London were pretty cool back in the early '90s. I haven’t listened to this stuff in years. Oh, wait, this isn’t the Future Sound of London; it’s the new Four Tet album, and it just came out”. Now I don’t blame Mr. Hebden for wanting to shake some asses, and I don’t expect him to keep remaking Pause or Rounds over and over again, but Pink more than occasionally sounds a little bit stale and nostalgic.
Pink is a dance music record, no doubt about it. This is not just electronic music; it is electronic dance music. Since 2010’s There is Love in You, it has been clear that Four Tet is trying to appeal to kids in the club who want to dance, not just nerdy IDM aficionados sitting at home smoking weed and stroking their beards. I understand and respect this desire, both from a financial and an artistic standpoint, but I think that Four Tet is capable of making dance music that is more forward-thinking and engaging than that offered on Pink.On its best dance-oriented moments, Pink sounds a bit like Around the House-era Herbert, which is a good thing. But too often Pink lacks the intricacy and subtlety that makes Around the House so appealing.
Things do occasionally take a turn towards the ambient, such as on the late album track "Peace for Earth", but even these moments tend to feel like a slightly juicier, squelcher version of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume Two, and they do not help him against charges of retro-ism. Closing track "Pinnacles" is perhaps the best example, and it's maybe the most disappointing track on Pink. One can almost hear Hebden thinking to himself, “Alright! Now let’s get funky!” A fairly predictable house beat pulses alongside a groovy baseline that could have been culled from any out of a zillion by-the-numbers house cuts from the '90s with results that are mostly shrug-inducing.
There is nothing particularly bad or amateurish about Pink, but it doesn't stand up to the vivid, beautiful sonic worlds Hebden has been creating for more than a decade. Even the related material on There is Love in You (which shared Pink's fixation with funky house beats) feels a good deal more fleshed-out and dynamic than most of Pink's. I feel like I am being awfully hard on our old friend Mr. Hebden here, but I do so because I have experienced him at his best before and know what he is capable of. Unfortunately, Pink ends up feeling predictable, dated, and yes, kind of retro.