Music Review: Four Tet – Sixteen Oceans (Text, March 2020)

Catboi Kropotkin showcasing how well this machine-crafted record fuses with the organic world.

Growing up in the era of Hot Topic, in which all countercultures had been commodified and also divided against one another, it took my punk ass a while to get into electronic music. Being a “raver” was definitely not cool, and there was certainly no awareness that rave culture had been just as countercultural and threatening to society as punk music had been originally as well. I had no idea in places like Chicago, specifically, there was a lot of overlap between these subcultures, even. There was also little sense that there existed electronic music that wasn’t oriented towards dancing at all! A handful of people who made more alternative or experimental electronic music got me through the door: Radiohead’s Kid A peaked my interest, even though I have never really liked them as a band. Bjork: I couldn’t resist Vespertine, and then I eventually found myself listening to Rounds, which was my first meeting with Kieran Hebden of Four Tet. I have been listening to Four Tet for seventeen years now–damn near half of my life. Four Tet is even sort of how I ended up moving to Chicago! While I was working as a full time English teacher in Milwaukee Public Schools and struggling with crippling depression and anxiety which only dancing could relieve, I got a rental car and drove down to Chicago to catch Four Tet at Smart Bar all alone, staying until the club closed in the wee hours of the morning, and going in to school on no sleep at all. I had been needing to dance so much constantly, but it took a lot for me to go out to an actual night club and dance by myself in public. I specifically remember encountering some men outside Smart Bar who were trying to get me to come party with them at their house. When I said I had to drive back to Milwaukee to work in the morning, one of them sort of dismissed how potentially challenging or skilled the work I do might be by saying he would just do my job for me and I should come back to their house. My reply was: “how qualified are you to teach African American literature?”

Hebden began in the experimental post-rock band, Fridge, which started with more traditional rock instruments and became more sampler-focused over time. In Four Tet, Hebden has consistently made music that is composed almost entirely of layered and manipulated samples, with a few organic additions of him actually playing an instrument, having someone sing a part that he then manipulates, or field recordings of his own home (in the case of this latest release). He is an improviser and has collaborated with musicians ranging from Thom Yorke to Burial to Laurie Anderson, and his music is not easily categorized, even within one song. A lot of critics describe his more dance-able output as being “club-focused” or “club-driven,” but please just listen to the single “Baby” and let me know how many dance floors still exist in which people would stay on the floor for an ambient sequence of bird singing for that long? I absolutely would, but a huge reason I was hesitant to go dancing at a nightclub was because it seemed most people didn’t go there to dance anyway and the kind of music I wanted to dance to was more ambient or shimmery and less WORK! THAT! MOTHA FUCKER! (However, it would deliver me very swiftly into the arms of all of that, and many other wonderful things.)

Sixteen Oceans has become critical quarantine listening due to coming out right as Covid-19 was beginning to put most of our lives on indefinite hold, but I have consistently returned to it as a result of it fitting my quarantine surroundings perfectly. Chicago under quarantine (at least on the far northwest side where I live now) is eerily quiet. The primary sound all the time is birds–birds and sirens. Birdsong is a recurring sonic element of this album, so when I play it as I walk around the neighborhood every day, the environment of this record actually fuses with my walking environment. There is a sense of tension and urgency in some of these songs, like “Insect Near Piha Beach,” but it always is accompanied by openings manifested by harps or soothing vocals, space clearing, sound evaporating…so we can truly appreciate one or two sounds in their fullness. It helps us come back to the urgency and tension with a stronger belief in what rises up out of such moments, what becomes possible, or even just what survives.

Even the cover of this album looks how quarantine has felt to me. It’s finally sunny, but why is it sad? Why does the sun through the finally green trees look like you are crying? Like life is obscured? It is very psychedelic both aurally and visually, too, and Chicago in quarantine has made me feel like I am tripping every day, even when I am totally sober. So much of what constitutes and shapes our worlds is actually subconscious, and so many things have been altered or gone missing, that every time I am outside I am literally tripping just on this insane shift in reality that is impacting my everything in ways I mostly cannot even perceive or be totally aware of.

The last side of the record (there are three, if you buy it on vinyl) keeps us in a sort of ambient reverie in which the natural world and its man-made instruments and problems are proved to be entirely inseparable, and we are reminded of what is green, growing, flowing, nourishing and needing nourishment: mama’s teaching Sankrit, children dancing. The world is made beautiful and entirely full of wonder and beauty and possibility again. A lot of folks are saying Hebden is maybe stuck in a loop and not pushing the boundaries of his own sound anymore; having listened closely and deeply for seventeen years, I believe strongly this is his most compelling and unified work to date.

The first time I listened to this I imbibed 5mg of THC and put on a relaxation mask late at night and got in the bath. Totally dark but for a few candles. I think it is definitely a better record for the daytime, though. Probably dawn would be ideal. Listen to it outside, if you can. ❤ If not, the bath is still really good. Needs birds.

Note: “Baby” is featured on my critically acclaimed spring quarantine playlist.


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