Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Four Tet Sixteen Oceans

There were no advance copies of Four Tet’s 10th studio album, Sixteen Oceans, sent to press. Any review you read of the album today was pondered over a weekend’s worth of listens right alongside the general public, hopefully while in self-imposed isolation meant to curb calamitous viral outbreak. This is partially because Kieran Hebden doesn’t need press. For over two decades now, fans have found their own path to his prodigious output organically, beginning with his late-’90s post-rock project Fridge, through his early experiments in sound collage and nu-jazz to his current success as a house DJ and producer.

Whether you’ve followed Four Tet from its humbled beginnings or came across Hebden via his collaborations with some of the biggest names in music, Sixteen Oceans — released on his own Text Records imprint — functions beautifully as something of an abstract biography, filtered through the lens of Hebden’s evolution toward more traditional expressions within house music. It’s hard to connect wordless songs directly to an electronic artist’s life story, but the way Hebden chose to title and arrange the tracks here suggests a gentle chronology, imbued with nostalgia and reflection on where his creative process has taken him over the last 20 years.

Hebden accomplishes this in unusual ways that stay true to who he is now as an artist. Album opener “School” kicks things off with a bustling energy, its almost manic melody sparkling into view in a way that suggest rapid-fire creative connection with those around him. It’s no doubt a shout out to Elliot School in Putney, which also birthed the careers of Hot Chip, the xx, and Burial (whom Hebden would eventually go on to collaborate with) and where Hebden began making music with Adem Ilhan and Sam Jeffers in a project they called Fridge.

While Fridge’s early recordings (rereleased as a compilation in 2009) skewed more toward traditional, if heady, rock (with Hebden on guitar of all things), it fostered a kind of curiosity in Hebden for electronic manipulation that came full circle by the time the trio released their excellent 2001 LP Happiness. But rather than an homage that replicates the skittering, clamorous, mood-driven pieces Hebden assembled with that project, Sixteen Oceans commemorates that period in his life with a ruminative ambient track titled “1993 Band Practice.” One of the shortest tracks on the LP, its minimalist clicks and smooth tones feel like nascent ideas floating through grey matter, a creative seed being sown. With its furtive digital pulses, associations of genesis, renewal, experimentation, and even literal springtime thanks to birds chittering in the background, “Green” continues that narrative of creative birth, its last synth pulses reverberating like digital ellipses.

“4T Recordings” works in a similar fashion, building ambient tones and a disembodied vocal over two minutes before isolated synth lines dance into the frame. While its melody follows a similar meandering pattern, it’s nothing at all like the largely guitar-driven “Double Density,” the first solo single Hebden released as 4T Recordings in 1997, before rechristening the project as Four Tet with the release of Dialogue in 1999. Instead, Hebden uses more than 20 years’ worth of perspective to render a song that feels more like a memory, a ghost of a vocal hook echoing through an empty club, birds replacing throbbing house beats with their own songs — now a poignant image as music venues and clubs shut down in the midst of global catastrophe.

Sixteen Oceans does not feel catastrophic — it feels serene and meditative. Gone is the static and the glitchy, unexpected samples that characterized Four Tet’s early output. Only its lead single “Baby” — featuring vocal samples from electropop superstar Ellie Goulding — recalls the club-ready bangers of his house-indebted albums: 2010’s There Is Love In You, 2012’s Pink, and 2013’s Beautiful Rewind. Even then, there’s a full minute-long pause in the middle of the track featuring little more than trickling water, crashing waves, and again, birds. When Goulding’s voice returns and the beat drops back in to finish out the track, the focus has irrevocably shifted toward those languid, contemplative tones previously residing in the background. Sixteen Oceans is more akin to Hebden’s 2017 album New Energy, in that it finds breathing space in moments with little-to-no tempo, interstitial ambient pieces, and bouts of warm sentimentality — compare, for instance, New Energy track “Daughter” and Oceans closer “Mama Teaches Sanskrit” — but this newest LP is magnitudes more pristine, a steady tide coming in to smooth sand into glass.

Even without those rough edges, there are a great batch of playful, stand-out tracks for Four Tet loyalists longing for some Domino-era feels. “Teenage Birdsong,” “Romantics,” “Love Salad,” and “Insect Near Piha Beach” make up a four-song stretch that could’ve easily composed a lost EP from that period, yet feel very much in line with Hebden’s current approach. “Teenage Birdsong” leans heavily on its jaunty flute melody, its beats darker and less sprawling, some intricate harpsichord breaks providing tethers to the airy woodwind. The low-key swoon of “Romantics” has the same breathless sensuality as Rounds cut “My Angel Rocks Back And Forth,” while “Love Salad” puts a mellower spin on the deliberate builds of other long-playing classics from Hebden’s back catalog, like “Love Cry” or “sun drums and soil.” Instead of careening into noise collage, “Love Salad” burbles just under boiling point, giving way to the churning but distant-sounding house of “Insect,” its spindly raga eventually taking over. This is Hebden’s bread and butter: electronic music that both indulges and confuses the senses of the listener with instrumentation you don’t normally hear in EDM.

Right now, the world feels like it’s dangling at the precipice of chaos, but Sixteen Oceans calmly presents 16 uncorrupted biomes, gorgeous little time capsules laced delicately with nostalgia. It might not exemplify Four Tet’s most iconic work, but the album often feels like a comment on all that rather than something totally apart from it. One gets the sense that Hebden found some comfort in the making of this record, a moment of gratitude for his incredibly prolific and ever-evolving career. And now that it’s here, you should take advantage of that feeling, too.

Sixteen Oceans is out now via Text Records.

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