I love the music of Four Tet because Kieran Hebden is a curious explorer. But he’s also familiar. Whether it’s a studio album, a live set, or a pre-recorded mix for a podcast, you can always detect his fingerprints and aesthetic within a few bars.
I like that about him.
Such an approach provides a comfy touchstone I can return to in the midst of an extra-ambitious record that pushes boundaries or intentionally strays too far from home. And let’s face it: each record you make can’t be something completely new, foreign, or never-heard-of-before. That’s just impossible, both in terms of practical creativity and cultivating any sort of fan base.
I mentioned this in my 2015 review of Morning Evening when I said that album was “the most coherent and focused piece of work in the entire Four Tet canon.” The guy took familiar elements from past recordings, siphoned through his live sets, and developed a delightful 40-minute suite that serves as a way to introduce your friends to his music.
But I feel this approach fails Four Tet on New Energy, his 2017 release on Text Records.
For all of the efforts to craft cinematic electro that’s multi-layered and international in scope, it feels less than the sum of its parts. Unlike nearly everything else in the guy’s corpus, nothing here really grabs me, or makes me stop what I’m doing and listen solely to the music. I listen to plenty of atmospheric electronic music as background noise at work – I don’t expect that from Four Tet.
Let’s unpack New Energy a bit.
I thoroughly enjoyed the interplay between organic sounds and futuristic synth effects. It came across in my ears as the score for a sci-fi/dystopian thriller set in some future war-ravaged East Asian country. It felt intentionally introspective – more latter-day Moby than Flying Lotus – and supremely melodic and chill. So far, so good.
It appears to be that actual string sections made an appearance, which is quite delightful. When paired with straightforward drum patterns and washes of synths to create minimalist pop, I could metaphorically see waves of indie-pop artists clamoring to sing over these tunes.
All nice things.
But with the exception of standout tracks like “You are Loved,” “SW9 9SL,” and “Planet,” I couldn’t detect any forward motion or, you know, energy. Yes, I know – energy doesn’t have to mean upbeat, driving, aggressive, or propulsive. It could just refer to the mood or tenor being evoked, as in you can have “good energy” and be a chill or meditative person.
Nevertheless, I don’t detect that next level, that oomph, that intangible bit of extra, that “WOW!” on New Energy, that I usually feel with a Four Tet record. Instead, I liked a vast majority of these tunes as individual entries.
- “LA Trance” dances and flits around like a curious water sprite, complete with glitchy backbeats you’d find on a Rabit tune.
- “Lush” is warm and ebullient, complete with this plucked arpeggio on a Japanese shamisen.
- “Scientists” borrows its beat from early Burial and synth melody from James Blake, but without sounding completely like its own thing.
- “Daughter” kicks off with a mellow groove, features some pitch-bent female vocals, and introduces an ethereal piano melodic phrase halfway through as everything slowly crescendos to a not-quite fortissimo conclusion.
But nothing really ever hits or sticks with me throughout New Energy.
Instead, I’m left with a 14-song album of impeccable musicianship that doesn’t really say anything or go anywhere in particular. I found it mostly frustrating, simply because I expect more from Four Tet than I do from lesser artists.
And that could be my issue, not his. I’m the one coming in with heightened expectations to listen to a new record from an artist I truly respect and enjoy. But while I admitted in my review of Whiteout Conditions from The New Pornographers to the knowledge that bands simply cannot recreate their big hit record over-and-over again, you DO want your favorite acts to make consistently good music.
I guess what I’m saying is this: you don’t have to like everything one of your favorite artists creates, and that’s healthy. But you can still be bummed with that familiar and comfy aesthetic you love doesn’t always satisfy your musical cravings.
So, is this a good Four Tet record? Sure.
The dude is super-talented and typically head-and-shoulders above most electronic producer types. But it is great? No. In fact, I’ll probably have to find creative ways to add the best tunes from this record into a mix for work instead of just putting on the whole record.
And I guess I’m OK with that.