Friday, August 31, 2012


Four Tet - Pink
Text, 2012

I figured I might as well join in the outpouring of love for Four Tet's new album, Pink (for examples, see the reviews here, here, and here, and the comments here). I don't know if I can call myself a long-time fan of Four Tet, but I've been pretty solidly on board since I first heard 2008's Ringer EP. "Ribbons" caught me in its spell--mysterious and alluring and weirdly beautiful; retrofuturistic in a strange way, like dusty chrome furniture in a space station. From there, I went backwards and caught up on what I'd missed. By the time 2010's There Is Love In You rolled around, it was fair to say that I was a fan. Over the past year and a half or so, it's been a pleasant surprise to have a steady trickle of music from Kieran Hebden, from collaborations with Burial to one-offs and pairs of tracks of new Four Tet songs. Those Four Tet songs are collected here, and it's a credit to the strength of Hebden's voice as a producer that Pink is a fairly unified set, exploring an area that, if not rigidly defined, at least has some pretty solid borders. If Pink doesn't quite match the heights of There Is Love In You, it's not for a lack of stunning moments, as throughout Hebden continues to demonstrate his ability to take what might seem affected in others' hands and turn out effortless, weightless music. The more overt turn for the dancefloor signaled by Ringer and followed through on his last album is front and centre, but there's also a nod towards his earlier work, with the sinuous, ever-shifting rhythms and cosmic outlook of free jazz, the gently psychedelic strains of 1960s folk and early 1970s singer-songwriter music, and the loose-limbed bop-and-knock of hip-hop shot through the floor-filling potential of the material here. Six albums into his career as Four Tet, Hebden's managed with Pink to sum up where he's been and hint at where else he might go. That both parts of that equation are thrilling suggests what a special talent Hebden is.

Pink is a lengthy album--it clocks in at just over an hour--but its length is put to good use: aside from a mid-album stretch of shorter tracks, extended run times provide Hebden with the room both to continually mutate the shape of tracks and to spotlight a track's parts. Thus, opener "Locked" allows its swinging percussion almost two full minutes to do all the lifting before it turns into infinitely refracted psychedelia, all shards of hallucinatory melody that subtly disorient even as they enchant. Similarly, closer "Pinnacles" pushes and pulls on its underwater, Caribou-esque techno centre, letting jauntily dissonant piano crash through the mix again and again, not to disrupt the groove but to highlight how swinging it is. Hebden is still able to pull back and isolate elements on the shorter tracks, though, as the drop into near-silence during the weirdly percolating break of "Jupiters" bridges its pretty overture with the jazzy and relentless groove that dominates its second half. Indeed, if there's a common denominator to the album, it's the importance of the drums to these tracks. Thrillingly alive--even when they clearly aren't live--they make the best argument for the evolution of Four Tet over the past decade, turning what's been an eclectic discography into a surprisingly linear trajectory. It's as if the collaborations with Steve Reid, the folktronica, the detours through house and techno had all been planned by Hebden, rather than happy accidents along the way as he developed. Regardless, it's all there in the drums, which, aside from the beatless epic "Peace For Earth" (probably the closest thing here to the material on There Is Love In You), cover the album like a web in much the same way those shimmering, Reich-ian pings and chimes covered the last album.

If the drums make the album, though, the stunning moments that I mentioned earlier come courtesy of the textures that interact with those drums. The chunky synths that close out "Locked" like a sunset. The kalimba/mbira that wends its way through the final three minutes of "Lion" and pushes the track's funkiness through the roof. The repetitive, old-school vocal sample that drives "128 Harps," and the heart-stopping pauses throughout the track, that inject some tension into what could otherwise be a bit of pretty filler. The chasing-its-tail vocal in "Pyramid" that allows the track to do "Love Cry" in reverse and offer the hardest, purest dance track of Hebden's career. These and other moments provide sumptuous highlights that move the body and fire the senses, suggesting that the music on Pink might best be called "gourmet techno." I've damned other albums for suffering from the dulling effects of great taste, but this is an example of undeniably great taste used to help the music rather than render it tame and predictable.

Despite the superlatives littering this and other reviews, it seems like it would be relatively easy to underrate Pink. Hebden's been so good for so long at this point that a new Four Tet album that does everything he's always done well and expands (or at least deepens) the project's aesthetic doesn't feel like a revelation. I doubt this album is going to be the starting point of any kind of revolution, and it's unlikely that Pink will be spoken of in the same hushed, reverential tones as his pal Burial's Untrue, say. What that doesn't and can't cover, though, is that this is well-written, well-produced music that hits all its targets in a relaxed, assured manner. Sometimes it pays to have a steady hand at the wheel, and it's difficult to imagine a steadier hand than Hebden's here.

On a deeper level there is one thing that Pink has going for it that suggests if it's not an "important" album, it's at least an interesting one: the tracks that make up Pink offer a model of how omnivorous music can avoid the over-caffeinated maximalism that tends to plague "post-everything" music, like Rustie's Glass Swords. At this point, Four Tet denotes an aesthetic sensibility that really does seem comfortable grabbing from just about anywhere, even if it mostly remains within certain genres and idioms. The pastoralism that first brought Four Tet notice is still present--if in limited supply on Pink; one of its wonders is how urban it feels--and the various elements at work in his sound are so integrated, so naturalised, that it's difficult to call anything he does a dalliance anymore. In this sense, Pink feels very timely: you could spend hours following its sounds and strands through YouTube, though that wouldn't necessarily make your experience of the album any richer. Knowledge of UK garage, 2-step, dubstep, house, and techno aren't required for entry--beauty and meaning are communicated on the surface as well as in the depths. In his study of literary modernism The Pound Era, Hugh Kenner compares the densely allusive poetry of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot before concluding:
[N]o knowledge about Coriolanus will lock Eliot's lines neatly together as the information that Paquin was a Paris dressmaker will lock Pound's. Pound omits, omits, but knows what he is omitting and can restore on demand; but behind Eliot's resonance there is frequently nothing to restore (how centrifugal are the Notes to The Waste Land!). (133)
In place of omitting, we might say that Hebden synthesizes or integrates, but, like Pound, he can restore what he's integrated, allowing worlds to continually bloom behind his music. Here an allusion, a citation, and the (seemingly) infinite archive of the internet that supports and supplements the experience of listening to Four Tet offers a connection to a broader cultural matrix without ever feeling like it threatens to overwhelm the music in the present moment. That might not seem like it's much, but I'm finding that an increasingly scarce experience when listening to music these days. If musicians can learn any trick from Four Tet's Pink, I hope it's to do the same.

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