A mixture of downtempo chill vibes and club noodlings from a zen palace.
Four Tet has spent the last 20 years creating music in various guises. Most of it settles into electronica and house music with added instruments borrowed from other genres or cultures. Each album changes something in the formula and keeps it fresh. ‘Sixteen Oceans’ feels a bit like a retrospective as different tracks attach to different eras.
Unusually, I found myself drawn to the song titles as they seem to lay out key moments in time across Four Tet’s life. We start at ‘School’ and the music is vibrant and playful. Indeed, this album has most of its bigger and bolder tracks at the beginning. ‘School’ and ‘Baby’ (complete with Ellie Goulding vocal samples) kick off the album evoking a lot of Four Tet’s earlier and perhaps best-known works. The drums are tight, muffled and glitchy all at once and there is a club pulse throughout.
After this, the album switches gears. To move towards a superb four-track collection that evokes a lot of what I loved about his 2017 album ‘New Horizons’. ‘Teenage Birdsong’ has a slow groove and infectious flute riff that sticks in your head for ages. ‘Romantics’ is light and airy as plucked instruments unfurl around you. ‘Love Salad’ then takes all the new age trappings and places it into an old school club track. It is the perfect merger of the two worlds and it bursts into my favourite track of the album – ‘Insect Near Piha Beach’. Here, a variety of muffled drum loops and zap shots roll into one like a machine. Over the top, a harp-like glissando lets rip at a much slower speed. It feels like a spiritual awakening made musical. Club style.
Once we hit this peak, the album shifts gears a third time for the last nine tracks. We move into beautiful serenity and largely ambient spaces. A lot of the tracks are short, small musical skits that tell just as much story through their title as they do through the noises. Some are barely more than tape hiss. Others like ‘Green’ are a bubbly textured pattern of heavenly synths popping satisfyingly in your ear.
More than ever, Four Tet has designed a roller coaster story that feels like a musical ascension of sorts. It does feel a little lop sided as the album complete loses any percussion from track 10 onwards. Similarly all the small little interlude pieces may have worked better as spacers between tracks like ‘Harpsichord’ is early on in the album. Instead, the album progressively dissolves into ambient noises and that will likely be a bit of a marmite choice for some if you listen to albums in order.
Outside of that, ‘Sixteen Oceans’ is a beautiful album. It won’t be getting you into a club rage and you won’t be dancing your soul off either. Four Tet seems quite content bringing in more spirituality and ambient focused samples into his music. Whilst that may not give you the bass drops of his earlier work, it does give you a wonderful sense of otherworldly calm and playful joy.
Recommended track: Teenage Birdsong
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