Four Tet’s music has always evoked movement. From the gently shuffling grooves of 2001’s Pause to the mesmerizing interlocution between animate components that defined his breakthrough album, Rounds, and, indeed, all the way to the meditative, trance-like minimalism of 2010’s There Is Love in You, the compositions of Kieran Hebden have never failed to, in a broad sense, elicit notions of dance; it’s hard not to imagine the ways that the human body might bend and stretch, might spin and jump, might stand still — might, in one way or another, move — in response to Hebden’s music. Pink, last year’s album-length compilation of previously released 12-inch singles, signaled a shift into a more tightly quantized, dance-oriented phase for the Four Tet project, certainly a logical development given the inherent connection to movement that his music has always maintained. In many ways, Beautiful Rewind, the first wholly new Four Tet record since There Is Love, continues this exploration of dance, but it also complicates it by engaging more directly with musical material from outside the oeuvre of Hebden.
As mentioned above, the intrinsic link to movement that Hebden’s compositions possess has guaranteed that the ethos of dance music has always lurked, in one way or another, within the producer’s music. With Beautiful Rewind, however, Hebden makes this connection even more explicit. Immediately, the shuffling percussion break that starts off album-opener “Gong” leaves the listener feeling as if he or she has just dropped a turntable needle onto an old, dusty jungle record in media res. Then, a few moments later, Hebden introduces a pitch-shifted, reverb-laden vocal sample so Burial-esque that it simply must be a knowing wink aimed at the “Burial is Four Tet” conspiracy theorists. In just the first few moments of the album, then, Hebden successfully summons the spirits of decades of British dance music, and many other songs on the album similarly employ musical ideas — vocal samples, rhythmic structures, specific timbres — that make reference to the rich history of UK dance and its dissemination through pirate radio stations. But the issue remains: to what end does Hebden use this material?
In answering that question, it might be illuminative to examine one of the key strategies of Beautiful Rewind: the sampling of literal human voices. First single “Kool FM” is fairly representative of this recurring technique. A couple minutes into the song, Hebden introduces a sample of a male voice saying “Hey, hey, hey” to a buoyant, propulsive effect, pairing it against a driving four-on-the-floor rhythm and some breakbeats. As a result of this sampling strategy, many of the tracks here have a nearly improvisational sense of live-ness to them — Hebden will start off with a characteristically beautiful, twinkling synth or keyboard line, and then drop in a rhythmically chopped-up vocal sample that seems designed to energize a crowd during a live performance. Correspondingly, the way that mid-album highlight “Buchla” — which similarly begins with a four-on-the-floor stomp ornamented with a voice saying the titular word — progresses through several relatively autonomous sections feels akin to the linear manner in which a DJ might choose to move through samples and musical ideas while performing. In this way, Hebden might be engaging with these sampling and compositional techniques for the sheer, visceral excitement that they will surely generate for any lover of electronic music.
And yet, even though Hebden is certainly employing musical material that is rich with signification and connotation with regard to the history of dance music, these musical elements — be they rhythmic or vocal samples, instrumental timbres, structural forms, or otherwise — never subsume the underlying, fundamentally Four Tet-ian components of the songs. The sparkling, pointillistic style of synth production that features so prominently on “Crush” and “Unicorn;” the swirling, sighing female voices that adorn “Parallel Jalebi;” the jazzy, extended saxophone harmonies on “Your Body Feels” — all of these are plainly beautiful and captivating in the way that Hebden’s music never fails to be. Thus, rather than coming off as derivative or purposelessly referential, the dance-oriented ideas that Hebden plays with on Beautiful Rewind complement and decorate the engaging, affecting musical forms that always seem to lie at the core of his work.
In the end, this album doesn’t feel like a major statement — most of this material is light in tone and somewhat sketch-like in structure. But the manner in which Hebden deftly weaves certain evocative elements of dance music into his own inimitable style imbues the entirety of Beautiful Rewind with a child-like sense of joy and discovery — Hebden is recontextualizing musical ideas that have clearly resonated with him on the deepest of levels, offering them up for the listener to digest within the paradigm of Four Tet. Admittedly, Beautiful Rewind isn’t Kieran Hebden’s magnum opus, but it’s an album that succeeds at both moving the listener emotionally and, like much of the producer’s impressive body of work, inspiring him or her to literally and physically move.