As much as dance music strives to move forward, it also pines for the past. Lately, it's been doing quite a bit of both—often at the same time. Records like Zomby's With Love and the debut LP from Paul Woolford's Special Request project, the excellent Soul Music, both canonize the memory of jungle and pirate radio's salad days without getting overly nostalgic or sounding derivative. It's an important balance to achieve when writing music largely informed by the essence of times gone by. Beautiful Rewind, the latest LP by celebrated UK artist Four Tet (a.k.a. Kieran Hebden), succeeds at traversing this territory for the most part, though it also finds Hebden losing sight of himself in the midst of evolving his sound and paying homage to a golden era of MCs and DJs.
Given the steady string of success in his discography, Four Tet might as well be impervious to writing subpar tunes and releasing uninspired albums at this point, which is to say that nothing on Beautiful Rewind is inherently bad. Each of its 11 tracks are as lovingly and painstakingly produced as Hebden's previous material; the somber, plinking synths on "Ba Teaches Yoga" sound as delicate and effervescent as they do on There Is Love in You's "Sing," and "Buchla"'s heady throb is as limber and invigorating as anything from Pink. "Unicorn," the second-to-last song in the tracklist, makes quick work of the kind of twinkling, understated, and essentially beatless compositions that Four Tet loves to squeeze in just before closing his albums. Most of Beautiful Rewind's pieces are in the right place, and Hebden has made it all sound as crisp, airy, and substantial as any fan would expect. It's only when he tries unfamiliar techniques and dabbles in esoteric source material that the music can lose some allure.
"Kool FM" was the first track to surface from Beautiful Rewind, probably because it best represents the new headspace Hebden works in for a good portion of the album. The song begins unassumingly with a steady kick pattern, a two-note bassline, and the soft drone of a few synths filling out the remaining space. Two minutes in, things take a jarring turn, and the rest of "Kool FM" is spent with smeared jungle breaks and samples of a radio jock vying for the spotlight of its frenetic groove. And just like galloping album opener "Gong," there's no guiding melody to sink into, only glimpses of what's been transferred over from the source material, which is a bit of a shame given Four Tet's exceeding talent in that area. The heavily percussive "Aerial" is a fine example of Hebden combining his melodic edge with the kind of atonal samples and dusty, repurposed beats that are scattered around Beautiful Rewind. "Our Navigation" also works well in that vein—even if its reverberating atmosphere and ambling synthline make the track an outlier on the LP.
But for all the moments when Beautiful Rewind doesn't sound like it comes from the same producer who gave us Ringer's astral synth tapestries or even the club-informed tenderness of There Is Love in You, there are gorgeous tunes like "Parallel Jalebi" and album closer "Your Body Feels." In both instances, Four Tet's beats are patient and stripped-down, allowing the tonal wisps, breathy vocal clips, and quiet flourishes more room to lilt and billow. And no matter how strong either of their grooves are, the focus is placed directly on the adorning melodies. These songs act like reference points in the landscape of a scattershot album that can be difficult to navigate. (Even the jumbled, wound-up electronics of "Crush" offer a welcome interlude between the stark rhythmic workouts on "Kool FM" and "Buchla.") Hebden has long had the ability to jump between styles and influences with ease, so it's understandable that he continued to push the limits of his sound when writing Beautiful Rewind. Thankfully, he's enough of a careful, diligent, and experienced artist to make even the lackluster experiments feel vital and significant in the larger scope of his oeuvre.