Four Tet makes electronic music for people like me. While I’ve explored various nooks and crannies of electronic music as a genre for nearly 20 years now, I never became a club-goer. Yes, I love live music, but I really don’t like to dance in front of people, and I certainly don’t want to be at a rave into the early morning hours. Hell, most indie rock and punk show end around midnight, which gives me enough time for some drive-thru fast food before heading home to get just enough sleep so I can function at work the next day.
Most electronic artists and DJs make their living performing to crowds of frenzied dancers. Kieran Hebden certainly does, and he’s a masterful live DJ. But he’s also an artist who connects with people who like everything about 21st century electronic music but prefer to do their dancing in the privacy of their own home while the vinyl spins on their home stereo. We’re the sort of folks who would rather crack open a track to examine what’s inside at a respectable time of night, even though we respect people who’d rather dance to it at 3 a.m. And let’s be clear—many of us “electro introverts” are envious of the extroverts who enjoy dancing in public.
So, any time new music from Four Tet enters the world, it’s reason to be excited. Hebden knows his way around a well-crafted dance floor banger and a shimmering downtempo groove. He’s able to weave together samples of acoustic instruments, airy minimalism, and pop arrangements to intricate and sumptuous ends. Much like that of his close friends and confidants Caribou and Burial, the music of Four Tet is instantly recognizable and completely his own. It’s especially true in how he renders his hi-hats, both in terms of their syncopation and the audio treatment.
On his new album Sixteen Oceans, all of those elements are present and sparkling. Tracks like “School,” “Romantics,” “Love Salad,” and “Insect Near Piha Beach” pulse with familiar, upbeat energy. Having listened to several of his live DJ sets over the years, I know exactly where Four Tet would take those songs into the stratosphere for a physical crowd. Layers of those aforementioned hi-hats fuse with skittering snare claps to deliver exquisite movement, while arpeggiated piano chords offer delicate, yet driving warmth.
The entire effect is more akin to the film scores of Wendy Carlos, Vangelis, and M83 than much of his own back catalog. There’s a subtle sensuality at play with tunes like “Baby,” “Teenage Birdsong,” and “Something in the Sadness” that you don’t often hear from Four Tet, and it’s very much welcome. I found a fresh appreciation for the interplay between crisp electro jams that could fill dance floors and the ambient sound collages that were perfect for late night chill-out sessions.
However, that mood doesn’t maintain its appeal throughout the back half of Sixteen Oceans. A full six of the sixteen cuts on the album are under three minutes, and four of those are basically a minute long each. While I recognize the need for instrumental interludes in some genres of music, such attempts create a disjointed listening experience in this situation. The entire tone of the project feels upended by the latter third, as any momentum or build towards a coherent conclusion feels forgotten and cast aside.
To be sure, it’s possible I’ve completely missed the point. Is the album supposed to be this reflective and introspective? Possibly. Highly probable. My own expectations and past experiences could certainly be clouding how I engage with these songs. Everything sounds great, if the mix is treble-centric and is in desperate need of some low end. I could also be thrown off by Hebden creating his version of music for guided meditation.
Ironically, I can’t help but feel a certain craving for more danceable tunes from Four Tet. Which, I realize, contradicts what I said earlier. Maybe I really do like to dance, and Four Tet has helped me bust out of my shell over the years, even if it’s just dancing with my wife and daughter after dinner time. Even though most of Sixteen Oceans is enjoyable, I’m not entirely sure what to do with it. It could be that I need the low-key vibes of Sixteen Oceans at this specific time of my life, and I’m not prepared for them. In which case, I should make plans to revisit this project later in the year with a different mindset. And if it’s not the case, well, then that’s OK, too.