The much-loved UK artist innovates through ambient.
If it wasn't completely obvious by now: Hebden is a singular artist. But even with such a uniquely specific set of characteristics, can all of this continue to feel fresh? Maybe this sounds unnecessarily sceptical, like scanning for dark clouds on the horizon of a clear summer sky. But as with anything novel, the effect of it can't be indefinite. The arrival of Sixteen Oceans, the latest Four Tet album, raises the question of freshness. If you're anything like me, though, the answer for now might be: there's still plenty of juice left in the ideas Four Tet favours.
The first point of contact arrives 29 seconds into "School," the opener. That's the moment at which Sixteen Oceans' first melody unfolds. It's a big, bold sparkling thing, delivered by what could be a harpsichord or toy piano, that's paired, naturally, with a swung, subtly decentred beat that packs some punch. By now Hebden knows just how much his tracks need to make their point, and he keeps the arrangement sparse, save for a pad that swells cleverly around the lead line.
As you're settling into the Four Tet zone, the second track, "Baby," delivers another trademark: the cut-up vocal. This one is a little different from the usual sample work, as Ellie Goulding repeatedly sings, "It's 'cause, baby, anything you can have, you're taking me on." The mood is warm yet melancholic, like the weary aftermath of some emotionally challenging event, but there's more than enough zip here to move a dance floor.
Sixteen Oceans has 16 tracks, and there are only a further three club cuts. Aside from "Baby," none of them are quite as striking as, say, the recent "Dreamer," or lots of the 2012 singles collection, Pink. "Insect Near Piha Beach" comes very close, though. An enigmatic string instrument and wafting vocal phrases wrap themselves around the toughest drums on the album, exactly the sort of radical contrast Hebden enjoys so much.
This club/non-club ratio is similar to that of New Energy, the last Four Tet album, but Sixteen Oceans surpasses that LP through the strength of its ambient and electronica. In fact, one of the most significant details here is that the album slips into a glacial ambient movement for its final six tracks. In getting a handle on this section, it's helpful to think of birdsong, samples of which appear frequently throughout Sixteen Oceans. From "1993 Band Practice" through to "Mama Teaches Sanskrit," there's a sense of gorgeous fragility and percussive melodicism that we might associate with the calls of birds—see, in particular, the sumptuous "This Is For You." "4T Recordings" (named for Hebden's first solo alias, which he adopted in 1997) is this section's discreetly dramatic peak, where haunting vocal cries and sustained bass notes join more birdsong and a gurgling melody for what feels like a moment of post-rave bliss.
A similar sense of innocence and hope prevails on other highlights. "Romantics" is the soundtrack to lovers idling by a river, the James Blake-style vocal sample and rolling harp keeping pace with the steady steps of the beat. There's also a literal link between the music and title in "Harpsichord," the instrument being played atop a cherub's cloud of pads. It's almost a year since "Teenage Birdsong" was released as a single, but it's as good a summary of Sixteen Oceans' appeal as you'll find here, particularly if you watch its video. It could have come off as patronising or contrived to follow two (presumably) teenage fans to a Four Tet gig at Alexandra Palace last year, but the images of the young women getting ready and later losing themselves in the show are surprisingly moving next to the unusual flute melody at the track's centre. This says plenty about Hebden's capacity to innovate within an aesthetic he himself created, which may ultimately be the reason Sixteen Oceans succeeds and the Four Tet project moves onwards.
Mon / 16 Mar 2020
02. Baby feat. Ellie Goulding
04. Teenage Birdsong
06. Love Salad
07. Insect Near Piha Beach
08. Hi Hello
10. Something In The Sadness
11. 1993 Band Practice
13. Bubbles At Overlook 25th March 2019
14. 4T Recordings
15. This Is For You
16. Mama Teaches Sanskrit