Four Tet, and some thoughts on music as content

I feel like my musical life divides semi-neatly (but almost completely arbitrarily) into three chunks thus far: pre-university (adolescence, I guess); university; and post-university. The post-university phase starts in summer 2001 (when I finished university, oddly enough), and is the longest, richest phase so far, maybe. It’s also the phase I think of as belonging to the internet, when online resources completely eclipsed print media as a means of finding and investigating new music, gorging on ILM discourse, writing for Stylus, scouring the archives of AllMusic, discovering music by the likes of Talk Talk and LCD Soundsystem that would become some of my absolute favourite music ever.

If there’s one artist that encapsulates… no, not encapsulates… if there’s a single artist who’s soundtracked this third phase more than any other, it’s probably Four Tet. Everything Is Alright was one of the first songs I downloaded using Audiogalaxy at my parents’ house back in 2001 (when it took ten minutes to download a two and a half minute song), and Pause was one of the first albums I bought after graduating, as well as being one of the first albums I bought after meeting Emma – in fact I think she sold it to me whilst she worked in Virgin Megastore. Since then I’ve bought each album as it’s come out, seen him live a couple of times, and investigated a load of other music that he’s been associated with, including Caribou, whose debut album as Manitoba I bought on Amazon’s recommendation after telling them I owned and loved Pause.

So I’m currently enthusiastically devouring Pink, Four Tet’s latest offering; not an album so much as a compendium of DJing-derived singles from the last couple of years, completing his move towards the dancefloor since 2008’s Ringer EP nicely. It perhaps doesn’t have the gestalt of There Is Love In You, although my perception of this may be compromised by knowing the music’s origins, but it’s pretty wonderful nonetheless, his music still looping and spiraling and layering in on itself like it always has done, but now more controlled, more purposeful, less given to happy accidents and tangential detours. Some other artists move from one location to another with their music, but he almost seems to spin in place, whilst maintaining a sense of momentum, of travelling. I like to listen to him whilst on trains, or cycling (only on cyclepaths, kids; no headphones on the roads).

Three of my most-listened records from this year (which feels pretty fallow to me thus far compared to the last three) are very utility-driven in their construction. Which is to say that the three in question – Pink, Wonky by Orbital, and ƒin by John Talabot – were all very definitely conceived for the dancefloor, or feel that way. Not that this should be at all surprising; all three are by dance artists who regularly DJ / have vast experience of getting fields of ravers going. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this as a motivation for music making – we’ve been doing it since the dawn of humankind, and it’s resulted in oodles of stuff that I absolutely adore and hold very dear to me.

But I’m just not quite feeling the love here with these three, even though I’m enjoying them all a lot. With the Four Tet this may just be a matter of time and familiarity; I heard several of the tracks live last December and loved them all, and Pinnacles was a favourite of last year too. The Talabot feels slightly lacking in personality and texture to me; it feels (and this is purely gut feeling, not any technical knowledge) as if every sound used on ƒin came straight out of Ableton or whatever software it was recorded on. There’s little in the way of grit or dust or blood in there, which leaves me feeling at a slight remove from it. This may be different had I ever danced on a Balearic beach, and compositionally its tight as hell in the build and release, but it just feels too focused on dancing to me to really make me love it as a listening experience.

I described Wonky the other day as feeling “like content rather than music”, which, understandably, prompted someone to say it was a meaningless comment. Ironically, the person who said it was a meaningless comment also said, a few months earlier, that New France was “so obviously there for the radio”, which may not have been meant pejoratively, but which I took as being such, from the context of the discussion

Back in April I reviewed Wonky for The Quietus, and included this comment: “Opener ‘One Big Moment’ starts with layers of quiet, sampled voices, a little like ‘Forever’ from Snivilisation, before dropping a beat and a reverberating synth riff and a slowly developing melodic topline that will have a Pavlovian effect on tens of thousands of people of a certain age. You could interpret that cynically, or you could put your hands in the air.” It’s that feeling, coupled with the idea that Wonky exists more as a way of providing new material to play live than as a record in its own right, that makes me think of it as a content rather than music.

I feel like I recognise content because I “produce content” for a day job; I’m a copywriter, a communications officer, and I know that, whilst what I write might be good, and fulfill its purpose, and have a desired effect, it’s done for a reason outside of itself. A brochure or website exists not because I was desperate to produce a brochure or website, but because we wanted it for a reason, and even if I had great fun interviewing researchers or taking photographs and feel proud of said brochure or website, it’s status is forever tied into its purpose. And I think great art, which is what pop music can be, transcends its purpose (and its status as a commodity, too).

Wonky, ƒin, and Pink (at the moment) all feel just a little too closely tied in to their purposes, which is a barrier to me, as listener, from falling hopelessly, desperately in love with them, and thinking of them as a great. What strange characteristic they’d need to possess in order to transcend their purpose, I don’t know – that’s part of the magic of art, of music, arguably – and there are, of course, huge and unanswerable questions about why we do things, about purpose and intention and the death of the author and the birth of the listener / reader / viewer / audience (once I buy a record the artist has no right to tell me how to use it; but how much should I respect their intentions?), about what music is for, both for the listener and the music maker.

It’s wrong to dismiss the idea of making music to make money, for instance, because the notion of the “sell-out” is a dangerous, disempowering one for many people, I suspect, but it’s also wrong to go too far the other way, into utility, and to dismiss the idea of art for art’s sake, music for music’s sake, the ancient human instinct to create beautiful things simply because they are beautiful. The former philosophy makes you a crippled idealist; the latter makes you David Cameron.

So Wonky feels to me like content for a setlist rather than, necessarily, as an album in its own right; likewise Pink, especially when thrown into relief against There Is Love In You, feels like content for a DJ set. But does that mean that This Unfolds, from Four Tet’s last album, is just content for an album? Maybe it is. Does this mean I don’t like Wonky, or Pink? Not at all; I just don’t find myself overcome by them the way I do by In Sides or There Is Love In You. Which could just mean that they’re not as good; or it could mean that they’re for different purposes, as much as any music is for any purpose.

But now I’m going in circles. Fin.

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