Scoring the Mundane: Four Tet's Morning/Evening, Reviewed

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There are three big reasons why this music probably won’t get much critical attention:

1. It’s pretty low-key.

2. It’s divided into two long tracks, which makes it harder for people writing about music to group the sound into boxes. (“This cut worked, that cut didn’t.”)

3. Kieran Hebden’s been making music for nearly 20 years now and has no interest in maintaining the veils of mystique around his methods that so many of his (lesser) contemporaries abuse. (Veils that a lot of professional music critics, of course, imbue with profundity.)

Now, none of those points are inherently sinful to critics, taken on their own. But all three together?! Forget about it!

But hey, maybe I’m being overly cynical and this’ll be held in warm esteem from the get-go. It should be. Because this is where Hebden — the most daylight-friendly and playfully childlike auteur in modern electronica — seems to have finally been encouraged enough by the ambitions of his old schoolmate Burial to go into all-out sprawl mode again. While the long 12-inches collected on 2012’s excellent Pink album were already partway there, Morning/Evening is essentially a straight-up ambient house record, and you can often drop the “house” part.

Four-Tet

The “Morning Side” and “Evening Side” are 20 minutes each, teeming and burbling and rippling and recapitulating bits of melody…and yes, sometimes thumping through ‘em, too. I find this direction thrilling, albeit quietly so. In a world drowning in nocturnal “brooding” electronica — rapidly overcrowded after Burial arrived and put his dark, cinematic, isolationist sweep to “dubstep” — it’s a pleasure to get a clear-eyed electronic record from a guy who’s actively trying to evoke a fragile, non-angsty repose. Of course, feelings of repose are frequently-mined territories in electronic music, but what’s special here is that Hebden seems to be trying to approximate the seemingly-mundane moments that we all experience daily, even if we’d like to think our whole lives were just cool brooding existential dread (or some combination thereof). (Seriously, how many more descriptors for decaying city streets do we even have left to use?) The message here, as I hear it, is: “You’re not cool. Just be thankful and awed that you’re even here, and try to make the most of it.”

For best results, do what’s implied: play the “Morning Side” in the morning — the commute to work did it for me — and the “Evening Side” in the evening, maybe settling in for a quick nap before hitting the club (or wherever you people go for fun at night). “Morning” is no more tailored to a 4 a.m. existential crisis than “Evening” is tailored to some portentous twilight; they just capture feelings of moving through your own little corner of the world while everything teems and shifts around you, gradually but sometimes in fits and starts. No chaos, no despair — just a natural world sparking up, a little melancholy but always propulsive — and eventually settling down for another day. It’s a world we navigate uncomprehendingly if not necessarily cluelessly. Waking up, making coffee, looking out the window, coming home from work, resting on the couch. I’m making it sound boring, but let me assure you that such moments so rarely get soundtracks this lovely. Don’t we all have some powerful personal moments in such on-the-surface ordinary routines? Hebden’s scoring the moments we don’t usually get scores for.

The “Morning Side” opens with some fairly soft kick-thumps and tippy-tappy hi-hats, layers another pairing of same overtop, and then about 45 seconds in makes one of those great Four Tet leaps where the music goes from barely anything to commanding your full and humbled attention. In this case, it’s just a soft wash of organ or synth, big flat sun and heat swelling over land. Just a few tones, slowly. Sometimes that’s all you need for a while. But then about 30 seconds later comes the part that anyone who hears it even once will come away humming: in quivers a gorgeous bit of melody from a Southeast Asian-sounding voice, which turns out to be sampled from bits and pieces of Indian singer Lata Mangeshkar performing for an old ‘80s Indian drama film called Souten. What this re-contextualization means to Kieran Hebden himself, an English man of Indian descent who’s referenced Indian music before but never so forwardly, I won’t pretend to know. But the effect is almost literally breathtaking. That melody aches and hangs in space and somehow seems completely malleable and yet…I dunno, almost too pure to even touch. Something like that.

That voice runs through most of the track, but it’s joined by repeating fragments that are almost as poignant. About five minutes in, there’s a hopeful, resonant little bleeping pattern that reminded me of the musical signal that the aliens communicated to earth with in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. For a while it’s delivered sparingly and the clips in the voice start to become accentuated, the echoes rippling and extending, the ends of certain phrases clipped here and there and placed to seem as though they’re climbing up to something Important. The synth washes get higher, and when the voice and most of the synths disappear around the eight-minute mark, some deceptively tricky drum programming starts building on itself with claps, thin chimes, and general density. And then that Close Encounters pattern comes back in amid shreds of static, and then the voice enters again. Just the voice, soft strings (apparently synthesized in parts, which could sound corny but stays just soft enough to be poignant), and the warmth of that synth. And then that pattern becomes clipped, everything appearing more artificial, more low tones added as if heretofore-unheard bits of that rippling pattern were casually and quickly getting uncovered. There’s even a couple of blatant “boing” noises in there, proving Hebden’s still got a sense of humor. When the track begins to patter apart toward the end into rainy runs, and then a deep blast of tuba (!) disappears as quickly as it began, it just makes you want to take anyone whose idea of profound electronica is The Disintegration Loops and laugh in their face.

four-tet

The “Evening Side” is admittedly less successful, not because it takes a while to get moving — which it does — but because the rewards it offers are minimal, and at the expense of a lot of time. The first several minutes are just some pointillistic, tittering amphibious synths dotting around, joined eventually by yet another clipped, warm synth throb and a choral voice echoing itself. There’s a subtle bend of a synth drip that disguises itself as that voice, and vice-versa, and the cumulative effect is akin to watching dots of setting sun playing over glass. I just wish the glass were a bit more colorful, because by this point the limitations of these particular synth tones are showing.

And yet in its best parts, “Evening” does draw on some of the same implicit images that “Morning” does: something being slowly taken apart and slowly constructed, sometimes both at once. Toy xylophone dings give way to what sounds like an accordion, accordion that first sounds faded and then gets loud and overwhelming, a trancelike bliss…only to stop abruptly. The drums do eventually come in around the 13-minute mark, but their entrance gets foreshadowed at least four minutes earlier, when the synths start spacing their trickles out to give way to a more basic driving force. The drums themselves aren’t just propulsive, but kind of martial in their way, like scatters of boots heard scurrying through a wall, the hi-hats being accented slightly differently every few bars. You wonder at first when the synths are gonna get bigger and fuller, as is the norm. But though a few of those synth tones are left to resonate, soon enough those rings catch the last faded bit of voice — both disguising each other once more, beautifully — and then disappear. The last five minutes of the album are almost entirely drums, thumping danceably with only some little scratches and blast noises interspersed. The hi-hats, previously closed, have now been opened ever so slightly.

There’s a strong “naturalist” feel throughout Morning/Evening, stemming from Hebden’s interest in New Age music. But this isn’t the New Age of Enya or Yanni or other one-named cheeseballs; rather, this stuff reminded me of the calm spatial places evoked by Brian Eno and Jon Hassell’s 1980 Possible Musics album, or (for a more contemporary example) Aglaia’s Three Organic Experiences — but with the cheese stripped away, and some percussive oomph now and then. But as patient and even elegiac as these sounds get, both “sides” successfully split the difference between, shall we say, swelling waves heard from a distance and the clatter and buzz of gadgets tuning up all around you. And a lot of the implicit distance in between. Buy it.

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Morning/Evening is out now on CD and vinyl.