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Sixteen Oceans is Four Tet at His Best and Most Euphoric

I have a bad habit of writing off artists who aren’t immediately grabbing my attention. I go through a lot of honeymoon phases; I get easily distracted by the shiny new song or album. My brain tends to then draw comparisons to music that it deems to have “phased out.” I find myself not caring as much about checking in on new releases, keeping up on press, or following their tours. Other people’s excitement can really dim it too. If I’m not into it, why are they? This is an awful, awful way to follow music. Pretentious? Definitely. Elitist? 100%. Every now and then my brain needs a jolt awake. “Hey asshole, remember your obsession with them two years ago?”

My most recent example of this path is Four Tet. To be fair I never completely switched off from following him, but I found I didn’t hold the same level of excitement. His 2017 album “New Energy” marked that dropping off point for me, a great album for sure but one that didn’t really stick with me (minus the gorgeous “Two Thousand and Seventeen”). It would be incorrect to say that post 2017 marked a down turn in activity; I don’t think he’s ever really had down time since 2009. He’s put out various high profile remixes, sought after live songs, and inscrutable named side projects. It seemed to me like he segmented his releases into distinct styles; down-tempo for his originals, long trance-inflected songs as remixes, and the floor fillers for the pseudonyms. There’s nothing wrong with any of these segmented tracks, but that segmentation left me a bit cold especially as my taste has skewed toward faster electronic music at the moment. His new album “Sixteen Oceans” seemed to continue this trend. The lead single “Baby” has a deeper low end than many of the tracks on “New Energy,” but seemed to confirm my theory and didn’t provoke anticipation in me. It wasn’t until I listened to the album as a whole that I received a big slap upside my capital M “Music Critic” head and fell in love with Four Tet all over again.

Take the opening of “Insect Near Piha Beach.” The echo-ey drum kicks invoke the feeling of a club set, giving the song an electric current of energy. The live recording drops out and is replaced by big booming percussion. The track then proceeds to pull in live instrumentation; strings, harpsichord, a repeated vocal loop. The energy continues right up until the low-end completely drops half-way through the song, leading to an interlude of enchanted bliss. This is a classic Four Tet move, building energy only to completely drop it, but one that has never sounded so good. This song is emblematic of the entire album, one where all of Four Tet’s strengths as a producer and songwriter are highlighted. All of his signature touches seem to coalesce together resulting in an exciting and energetic album.

“Insect” is preceded by my other favorite track on the album, the epic “Love Salad.” Here Four Tet takes his penchant for classic trance infused music and pairs it with live piano and a driving kick drum. When the synth joins in around the 3-minute mark, it results in a hands in the air moment worthy of an Above and Beyond set (and I mean that as a compliment). “Something in the Sadness” takes similar cues but with a lighter touch. It’s a song to get lost in, with chimes layered on top of the light synth. If we’re continuing the comparisons to mainstream DJs, this would be the interlude on a Sasha and Digweed mix.

“Sixteen Oceans” really does a great job showcasing Four Tet’s appeal; his expansive music influences and his unconceited taste. There’s an accessibility to his and pop appeal to the songs “Teenage Birdsong” and “Romantics” that feature unique instrumentation from the harpsichord to a pan flute. “Baby” is of a similar vein but presents more direct crossover appeal with its ever present looped vocals. These tracks are all done with an air of sophistication though; none of them are overly saccharine or cheesy. There are dense productions to match songs that are so immediately pleasing. Add another part of the Four Tet special sauce; tracks with broad appeal that can engage your brain.

The last piece of this album is its connection to nature. Natural sounds are omnipresent and bird sounds factor heavily into each track. The interludes and back half of the album grounds you a sense of a place. You can envision a retreat within nature where Kieran has settled to record; the sounds of birds, rush of wind in the trees, sounds of a stick snapping. This adds to “Sixteen Oceans” sense of positivity. It’s hard not to feel at ease and connected when listening to the album. “4T Recordings” calls to mind that higher sense of connection. As the vocal slowly becomes more foregrounded in the track it’s hard not to compare it to a technique used in long meditations. There’s a similar sense in “Green,” as the track slowly builds to a steady energy.

It’s hard to overstate just how accomplished and cohesive this album feels. Every part of it feels exciting and energetic and of a similar piece. The tracks avoid repetition even though they are all made up of similar parts. It reminds me just how amazing Four Tet is and how silly I was to sleep on his work.

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