Though he didn’t intend it to be this way, Four Tet released his new album on a very important day. British dance stalwart Kieran Hebden shared new full-length ‘Sixteen Oceans’ last Friday (March 13), the same day that millions around the world – myself included – retreated into their homes in the face of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, settling in for what looks set to be a vast period of self-isolation.
As with every highly-anticipated new release from an artist I’ve followed and loved for years, I’d have dedicated a fair amount of time to digging into the album regardless of the situation, but given the timing and freakishly abnormal real-world background, getting to know ‘Sixteen Oceans’ came hand-in-hand with quickly needing to learn a new way of life – the two have since become synonymous in my head.
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Always turning to music to distract, comfort or validate me in times of upheaval, stress and existential panic, the soundtrack I chose in these first few days was inevitably going to have a significant impact on how I navigated this new world we’ve been asked to live in for a while, and as such I let it seep in willingly.
As a very anxious person – not to mention a freelance journalist with no fixed income – the fundamental lack of certainty that’s colouring everyone’s thoughts now has got me doubling down on my usual worries, and has brought with it a deep need to feel some kind of escape. Though I’ve come to heavily rely on a collaborative playlist made by a group of my friends and filled with defiant, uplifting songs of hope (I prescribe one dose of Modest Mouse‘s ‘Float On’ per day to keep the existential demons at bay), ‘Sixteen Oceans’ provides a different kind of balm.
Four Tet’s latest effort has as much in common with ambient music – something I use constantly as a tool to soothe anxiety – as it does dance. Opening tracks ‘School’ and ‘Baby’ are built on skittering beats that could slot right into a rave, but their glacial synth lines and repeated vocal samples sit as closely to the transcendence of ambient as they do the fist-pumping of house and techno, while ‘Teenage Daydream’ is a hushed symphony fleshed out by a warm, enveloping pan pipe riff.
The idea of sameness and numbing repetition is one that millions across the world are slowly coming to terms with through this ongoing period of social distancing, and ‘Sixteen Oceans’ manages to lean into this – there’s a numbing quality to the drawn out dreaminess of ‘Something In The Sadness’ – while also, crucially, helping you steer well clear. The one-two of ‘Love Salad’ and ‘Insect Near Piha Beach’, sitting in the album’s mid-section, have no hard edges, but contain enough life to give colour and shape to what can otherwise quickly become carbon-copy days of endless hand-washing and dread.
Seen as the most sociable music genre, dance music often feels synonymous with large gatherings, parties and groups of friends converging. If you’re listening to it alone, chances are it’s to amp you up while getting ready for a Friday night rager. There’s a certain transcendence that you can achieve on the dancefloor, though, given the right soundtrack – a feeling that you can stop time and outside pressures for a second. The same result, I now fully realise, can be achieved when alone.
Four Tet has become a master of the solitary side of dance over the past two decades, and his live shows also often focus on the solitary aspects of dance music as much as they feed into the community of it all. While his Alexandra Palace shows in London last year, enhanced with a magical light show that saw 40,000 lightbulbs dangle on ropes from the ceiling, felt like a shared experience, Hebden’s legendary annual Brixton Academy all-night residencies, hosted with no lights at all, feel perfectly built to send your thoughts inward and transport you away.
Even the harshest, most visceral dance music has a meditative quality, carrying you away to a simpler place through its near-endless repetition and slow, steady build, and it’s the thing, above all else, that has given me calmness and soothed me against the ongoing panic that’s consuming the globe right now.
Over the coming days, weeks (and months?), even the staunchest introverts will have a hard time adapting to their new existence of social distancing, and when your eyes are stinging from the dregs of the Netflix queue and options on the bookshelf are running dry, dance music provides an escape and a gentle push back in the right direction, offering balance and purpose in a world that’s rapidly turning upside down.