Four Tet's 'Sixteen Oceans' Explores a Rich Sound Palette
Four Tet's 10th album, Sixteen Oceans, begins on the dancefloor, travels to the woods, and ends becalmed, invoking, and bestowing peace and tranquility.
13 March 2020
It is hard to believe that Kieran Hebden has been making music as Four Tet for over 20 years and that Sixteen Oceans is his tenth album under that name, not to mention his countless mixes, remixes, mix albums, collaborations, and solo releases during that time. In those past two decades, Four Tet has been synonymous with a combination of prodigious output, consistently high quality, and fearless variety and innovation, all while making his music accessible and unpretentious. Hebden has also been consistent in interspersing moderate bangers with "field sounds" and other more bucolic interludes. All of that has added up to something of a trademark gestalt where the whole is usually at least as good if not better than the sum of its parts. It's is an almost impossible high wire act to pull off, and yet each release has felt natural and organic, if not indeed effortless.
Even if we only look at Hebden's last four Four Tet albums, we can see an impressive purple patch from the almost constant medium simmer of Pink (2012), to the more robust and frenetic Beautiful Rewind (2103), the glorious oddity of Morning/Evening (2015), and the sublime serenity of 2017's New Energy. The records released on an almost metronomic schedule, achieving what the poet Jack Gilbert, in his poem "The Abnormal Is Not Courage", called "the normal excellence, of long accomplishment". Four Tet might be offered as Exhibit A for anyone seeking an entrée to electronic music, at the same time that he offers a host of easter eggs and conceptual, emotional, and intellectual challenges to the more adventurous and seasoned listener. It's quite a remarkable thing to have pulled off, to be able to appeal equally to the entry-level and advanced listener, and this new album turns out to be no different in that regard. However, it takes a rather more circuitous route (and this is a journey, make no mistake) than some of its predecessors, which makes it perhaps all the more intriguing.
It should also be noted as we embark upon this journey into sound that Four Tet's past five albums, including this one, have either been almost exactly an hour or almost exactly 40 minutes long, for what that's worth, but this also points to Hebden's discipline, consistency and focus. Sixteen Oceans falls into the former category, clocking in at 55 minutes, although four of the album's 16 songs are barely a minute long or less. Even so, having achieved such consistency and having approached perfection with New Energy in 2017, a first and perhaps superficial listen to Sixteen Oceans might imply that something more like random rules are in play here. That because of the wide-ranging sound palette and the oscillation between beats and the absence thereof and that we might finally be seeing a glimpse of the downside of what has been a tremendous run of form. Initial impressions of the album are somewhat underwhelming, but this first impression should not be considered definitive, as we will see.
It might be that there is something more counter-intuitive at work here. While the album at first appears accessible to the point of being a little bit bland and formulaic as if Hebden is leaning into his modus operandi, repeated and sustained attention reveals that there is a subtlety here, belying the initial immediacy of some of the music. The first two tracks, "School" and "Baby" come out of the traps with some straight-ahead dancefloor tropes before we transition to something more meditative with the rather nominatively determined "Harpsichord", which glides into "Teenage Birdsong". This appears to be where we get the first sign of something slightly tired and belated, as the fluted melody feels somewhat trite and facile, perhaps exposing the possibility that Hebden's previously richly upholstered bag of tricks might, after all, be getting a little bit threadbare.
However, the following "Romantics" offers what seems to be a blend of the two preceding tracks, offering pizzicato and simple melody over a simple and subdued beat. It synthesizes the ambience of "Harpsichord" and the pop sensibility of "Teenage Birdsong", as if he is showing us his workings and the possibilities of musical intertextuality within a mini-suite of three songs. What first appeared obvious and facile and, frankly, kind of disappointing, suddenly seems to be more interesting and mysterious, as if we have been seduced by the trap of aural immediacy when what lies beneath is as textured and sophisticated, while also just as accessible, as you might expect based on Hebden's previous output.
Indeed, by the time we get to "Love Salad", it becomes more apparent that Hebden is embarking on a genuinely synthetic project, intent on blending the bucolic and the urbane, the populist, and the arcane, the beat with the arpeggio. "Teenage Birdsong" was, it turns out, less of a red flag and more of a clue. "Love Salad" and its successor "Insect Near Piha Beach", enter Thom Yorke and Radiohead territory, with gorgeous textures, slightly itchy beats, and some more plucked sounds that stretch out into a dozen minutes of sublime abstract ethereality.
This is the golden stretch of the album. It's followed by two concise tracks of only about 40 seconds, each alternating between the plastic burps of "Hi Hello" and the birdsong and piano étude of "ISTM". Then there's the more elongated and energetic "Something in the Sadness". The song recalls the heydays of Kraftwerk and Vangelis in what feels like a rather knowing way until it ends with a coda of interference that dirties up the pure through-line of the song that has preceded it, almost jolting us back to the present, again.
From here, we delve back into the ambient, meditative mode of "Green", a cascading aqueous sound, again recalling some of Kraftwerk's classic keyboard figures. After this, we segue naturally into the watery interlude of "Bubble at Overlook 25th March 2019", a beautifully simple counterpart to its longer antecedent. We approach the home stretch with the knowing drone and cry of "4T Recordings", accompanied once again by intermittent background birdsong as a long chord unfolds over three minutes of filmic beauty and a simple but restless melodic figure.
Somewhere in here, the listener realizes that s/he has been caught, seduced by the easy attractions of the dancefloor and naïve melody, now lost deep in the woods of found sound and luxuriating chords. We find our way home, whether out of the woods or deeper into the heart of their mystery, through these last three songs, "4T Recordings", "This Is For You", and "Mama Teaches Sanskrit", three simply beautiful and patient pastoral meditations.
The closing "Mama Teaches Sanskrit" resolves the album with a full retreat from the dancefloor where we began. It's a return to the plucked sounds of "Romantics", "Love Salad", and others and an envoi of "Om" and "Shanti Shanti Shanti". Upon first listen, it feels a little forced, as if we are being backed into a narrative and philosophical corner of Zen resolution that the foregoing musical narrative has not earned. But upon repeated revisiting this ending feels just about right, a salutation, an invocation, and a blessing, bestowing peace on its listeners, far away from the hurly-burly where the album opened, as if we have all traveled these 16 oceans together, spiritual questers in search of a stable center.
Further, the continuous return to plucked sounds, whether in the form of harpsichord, harp, or other versions of something like pizzicato and birdsong either in the forefront or in the background, suggests a twinned theme whose significance we should perhaps not ignore. It's as if Hebden is indeed plucking sounds from the air, from the world, and his consciousness in the deeply Romantic fashion of poets. Four Tet marries the naivety of a childhood sensibility, the sublime immanence of nature, and the infinite possibilities of the imagination ingeniously and thoughtfully, and further imbuing them with a borrowed but genuine mysticism that is, as always with Four Tet, ultimately very satisfying.
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