New Energy requires less work from its listeners than any other Four Tet album.
New Energy requires less work from its listeners than any other Four Tet album—and it also sounds like the one that required the least work to make. It’s one of Kieran Hebden’s most immediately pleasurable albums, just fine as a pure listening experience, and a good first Four Tet album to play for someone who’s never heard him. But it lacks the craft we’ve come to expect from Hebden, and new fans should try to look beyond its borders once they have heard it.
New Energy continues in the club-leaning direction he’s picked up since There Is Love in You and its unexpected DJ-set staple “Love Cry.” But it’s lusher and quieter, painted with a simpler palate. For the first time, the jazz influence that’s led him to cram dozens of moving parts into one drum track is absent. He tends to center one element at a time: the lonesome santoor that lopes across “Two Thousand Seventeen,” or the hang drum he happily slaps away at on “Lush.”
The tracks here rarely stray from four-on-the-floor, and those that do could be roughly classified as “beats,” especially “Two Thousand Seventeen” and “Daughters,” which resembles nothing so much as DJ Koze’s Madlib homage “I Haven’t Been Everywhere But It’s On My List.” You’d be forgiven on a blind listen for mistaking New Energy for an album by one of Hebden’s chiller imitators; for instance, Bonobo’s Migration from this year buzzes with sound in a way New Energy doesn’t.
It is interesting that Hebden would name one of his new album’s most sedate beats after what many people would agree is one of the worst years in recent memory. This points to a possible reason why Hebden has decided to simplify things in this way: feel-good, wholesome music is in vogue right now. New age is making a major comeback, “chill beats” is a booming Internet radio format and the hottest new rappers trade in exuberance and sincerity rather than scowling self-pity.
Maybe the title, which certainly sounds new age, implies the record is meant to bring some much-needed positive vibes back to the world. It certainly works as stress relief, and that’s the main reason New Energy is worth a listen. Still, it is unlikely anyone’s going to turn to this over a really good ambient album. Even Hebden’s own There Is Love in You, a sweeping, romantic record liable to induce foolish grins in its listeners, should do more to lift the spirits than this one does.
Casual listeners will like New Energy, but longtime fans will recognize it as part of a worrying trend in Hebden’s discography: each subsequent release of his has shrunk in scale, size and ambition. Beautiful Rewind, at 40 minutes, was full of great ideas but still slight. Morning/Evening consisted of two 20-minute tracks and came off more as an EP, or even a single, than a full-length statement. New Energy runs 56 minutes over 14 tracks, but there is less on it to pick from than ever before.