Music Reviews

The Waters Are Calm and Decidedly Safe on Four Tet’s SIXTEEN OCEANS


Genre: Microhouse, Ambient

Favorite Songs: “School,” “Baby,” “Love Salad,” “Insect Near Piha Beach,” “4T Recordings”

?’s meteoric rise to Most Popular Emoji was an unexpected one. Not the driving force—horniness has been the de facto Latin root behind most all emoji’s meaning—but the target is a bit confusing. There isn’t anything inherently horny about “?.” The ? emoji is one that conveys a teary-eyed sense of wonderment and, yes, I suppose that is somewhat synonymous with another term du jour, simping, but simping isn’t cute and I guarantee not a single soul of the shut-in sex-deprived look like that emoji when their hopping into @neekolul’s replies. All this to say that the ? emoji should be stripped of its randy connotations, and I’m here to say that ? is much better served to describe the experience of listening to SIXTEEN OCEANS, the latest studio album from Four Tet, a man who would never get horny online.

For a second, let’s appreciate the tracklisting and my instant word association reaction to them:

  1. “School” — Doesn’t exist anymore
  2. “Baby” — Haven’t been one of those in years
  3. “Harpsichord” — Don’t have anything for this one, sorry, but it sounds swell
  4. “Teenage Birdsong” — Be careful around Drake
  5. “Romantics” — Probably having a hard time with this whole quarantine business
  6. “Love Salad” — I sure do
  7. “Insect Near Piha Beach” — Perfect song title (maybe his best ever), pairs splendidly with “Love Salad” (he’s so good at naming these things)
  8. “Hi Hello” — Hi to you too, hope all’s well
  9. “ISTM” — Drawing a blank on this one but surely there’s some comedy to be mined
  10. “Something in the Sadness” — A bit too Morrissey for my taste
  11. “1993 Band Practice” — Before my time
  12. “Green” — One of the best colors around
  13. “Bubbles at Overlook 25th March 2019” — Very soothing to read
  14. “4T Recordings” — 4T>5G
  15. “This Is For You” —  This is for me
  16. “Mama Teaches Sanskrit” — Also soothing to read

Still reading? Cool.

SIXTEEN OCEANS is neither the best nor the worst Four Tet record; it is the cromulent ideal of Four Tet records. There’s everything we’ve come to expect from him—the head-turning house cuts, the slow burning ambient stuff, the magisterial marriage of the two—but there’s not much, if really anything, unexpected. It’s puzzling, the lack of surprises, considering NEW ENERGY, his previous record, lacked that real wow factor too. It’s doubly puzzling when you consider that the argument can quite convincingly be made that Hebden is at the height of his artistic powers right now—last year’s LIVE AT ALEXANDRA PALACE is a magnum opus, “Only Human” is the most ascendant track he’s produced, and his radio appearances for NTS, Boiler Room, etc. have been downright splendid.

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And while Hebden’s set the bar higher than most everyone, the records that fall short aren’t duds. SIXTEEN OCEANS is still one of the finest records you’ll hear this year, setting the table with a couple tremendous club leaners, “School” and “Baby,” before wading into the more ambient waters. “Baby” is undoubtedly the standout track, the propulsive beat and chopped Ellie Goulding vocals are incinerators from the jump, but the album is defined by the second half’s drifting delirium that requires a full run; the cuts would not slot into a playlist all that well. “4T Recordings” is the B-side’s best, an especially ethereal cut enhanced tenfold by the album teaser video to which it soundtracks.

But outside of these tracks there isn’t all that much to say that I haven’t already said. “Love Salad” and “Insect Near Piha Beach” are delightful but could really do with a more aggressive touch (think the souped-up version of “LA Trance” from his last two live records). It seems at this juncture, Four Tet studio albums serve as a foundation, a springboard from which to leap from in live iterations. And though it will be quite some time before we can see Four Tet in the flesh, you can see these ideas simmering towards a boil. Hebden was truly in his bag with this week’s Boiler Room performance, crafting some really divine synth jams alongside wicked edits of recent Caribou and Jamie xx tunes. This is the arena in which Hebden thrives and thankfully each album cycle gives us ample opportunities to see a master at work. It’s possible we’ve already heard the best Four Tet record but there is no doubt in my mind we’ve yet to see his crowning achievement.

Ryan Moloney
I'm workshopping a professional bio.

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