One thing that is unusual about Kieran Hebden’s take on electronic music as Four Tet is that it really seems to dance. The music, I mean. A lot of modern dance music is vainly repetitive, brutally over-compressed, and driven by simplistic ideas of tension and release that remind me of the line graphs I used to draw in algebra class. There is something depressing about such mechanical precision, something fatalistic about a climax you can spot from a mile away. Having my senses overloaded is not a shortcut for being impressed. And I’m not saying I don’t like Daft Punk, but it isn’t enough for a song to hit me in the face with drum machines and overdriven pyrotechnics. Shock and awe doesn’t cut it as a strategy for winning wars, and it isn’t enough as a strategy for making music either. There is no reason that humans shouldn’t be able to make dance music that reflects the sense of freedom and flexibility that you get from dancing, the sense you get from having a body and being able to move it.
It wouldn’t have made sense to mention dance music and Four Tet in the same paragraph in the early 00s, around the release of his second and third LPs, when music journalists were calling his stuff “folktronica.” He fought his way out of the critics’ trap with 2005’s all-too-appropriately titled Everything Ecstatic, and it is only in the last few years—after collaborations with everyone from Burial to polymath jazz drummer Steve Reid—that his real musical versatility has become evident. He has never made “dance music,” but it has always danced, from the stubborn but genial discontinuity between the keyboard loop and the sampled jazz drums in Rounds opener “Hands” to the kaleidoscopic exuberance that fills songs like Ecstatic’s “Sleep, Eat Food, Have Visions.” In his albums, sounds and textures come at you from all kinds of sources and from every direction: gritty hip-hop drums, chopped-up percussion field recordings, digital bleeps and bloops. They are all together, in the same room, late at night, a little drunk, not necessarily speaking the same dialect, but dancing together and having a great time anyway. It feels like a party, but only up to a certain point; you probably wouldn’t take “No More Mosquitoes” anywhere near a dance floor.
Which brings us to the tail end of the last decade, which saw Hebden making one of his most unexpected moves yet: taking up residences in London clubs The End and Plastic People. Although his globe-trotting eclecticism is in full display in some of his recent DJ sets, the textures of There Is Love In You, his newest LP, are more limited in scope. There are more disembodied bits of vocal samples and layered synth arpeggios, and less material from African drum circles and folk records. The rhythmic pulse has lost none of its flexibility or complexity, but where the longer exploratory pieces on earlier albums would make restless shifts in direction, willing to fall apart at a moment’s notice, the rhythmic heartbeat on these pieces throbs with persistence. “Sing,” for example, piles an ever-shifting, shimmering array of female vocals and percussive synthesizer beeps atop a loop that sounds like it was written with a dance floor in mind.
None of it is very precise; some of the tracks have surprising rough edges, but the whole thing plays better that way. No one could ever accuse even the most straightforward pieces here of being rigid or lifeless; taut and soft-spoken “Circling” builds from a quiet bass drum heartbeat and a couple arpeggios to a choir of musical puzzle pieces, running at different speeds but synchronizing harmoniously. Sure, there is more “dance” in this album, but it is still not a dance album. “This Unfolds” shares the length and impressive scope of the single “Love Cry,” but borrows none of its urgency, preferring instead to unwrap its psychedelic gifts with a placid smile on its face. The whole set is energetic but not exhausting, stopping along the road to breathe and cleanse the palate.
Several of these tracks were club-tested, designed to sound as at home in a hall full of sweaty bodies as they do in a living room or through a set of headphones. In spite of all that, the record is notable for its humility. It is big, but without feeling grandiose. While Everything Ecstatic was bursting at the seams, bright and flashing with cacophony, Hebden doesn’t try to dazzle us with any sudden moves this time around. And the album is a joy, embracing the idea of dance music, not as a bare idea, but by virtue of having lived in it.