opinion bySCOTT SWANSON
How do we value electronic dance music? Do we require it to have soul, to make us think and feel, to speak to us? Or do we assess it simply by its intrinsic ability to get us off our asses and into the noble and ancient pursuit of rhythmic bodily motion?
There is a muted and spectral emptiness at the center of Beautiful Rewind, the seventh album from London’s Kieran Hebden, otherwise known as Four Tet. Once upon a time, Hebden excelled at pulling back the curtain and showing us the ghost in the machine, the bloody human heart at the center of his productions. Like his ex- schoolmate and occasional collaborator Burial, Hebden has a gift for making the synthetic feel organic, as though all the sounds and beats and melodies he traffics in already exist in perfect form, and only need to be plucked from the atmosphere and condensed into four-minute distillations of their combined essence.
Thanks to that gift, Hebden’s early music was often filed under the slightly ridiculous “folktronica” label, a moniker he’s been running from ever since. Sure, his instinct to strip back his music, tear down what makes him great, re-examine it, and build it back up again is a solid one – it’s the mark of an artist willing to grow and push boundaries. But on Beautiful Rewind, progress comes at the expense of connection.
The album starts with promise: the chaotic, disorienting “Gong” is one of the best things Hebden has done. The clattering percussion and disembodied female voices (a very Burial-esque touch) give the impression of being chased down impossibly narrow alleyways. Of all the songs on Beautiful Rewind, it speaks the most to that second definition of electronic dance music – it feels almost primordial as it compels you to shimmy and lurch.
Second track “Parallel Jalebi” maintains the momentum – Hebden transposes a pile-driving synth figure with a lackadaisical, head-nodding groove to great effect. But after that, Beautiful Rewind descends into the void, as tracks come and go without much form or distinction, clipped voices weave in and out of the mix before leaving an impression, and an overreliance on hammer-headed repetition becomes tiring. The beats are hard and effective, but the works they aim to support just don’t have much to say.
A few gems do rise from the murk. With its four-on-the-floor house feel and eerie, woozy sirens, “Kool FM” maybe belongs on a different album, as a stuttering “hey! hey! hey!” sample gives it an extra jolt of energy. Another winner is the funky “Aerial,” which harkens back to “As Serious As Your Life” from Rounds, Four Tet’s monumental 2003 release. It’s the one moment that Hebden eases up the reins and lets the music breathe. Coming so deep in such a weighty album, “Aerials” feels like an absolute relief by the time you reach it.
But for the most part, this is a record of grays and steels, of industry and construction, unlike the technicolor bursts and – OK, I’ll say it – folksiness that frames Hebden’s greatest works. The album’s title and artwork – a kaleidoscope of greens, blues and oranges — seem strangely inappropriate, given the content.
Instead, it feels a little like the latest record from another act in transition: noted Four Tet fans Radiohead. As with The King of the Limbs, Beautiful Rewind is always keeping us at arm’s length, coldly allowing us to admire the craft without letting us in on the secret. It can make for a lonely listen. [C+]