Sixteen Oceans, by Four Tet
Kieran Hebden started out playing guitar in a rock trio called Fridge, but for the past couple of decades he’s been making records of solo electronica as Four Tet. Just last year he performed one of his electronic dance sets in New Zealand, a guest of the Auckland Arts Festival. He’s also a producer, and Neneh Cherry’s fine album Broken Politics from a year or so back had the benefit of his beats and backdrops.
His own latest record feels at times like a relative of that project. A track like ‘Baby’ fashions a hook out of a couple of vocal samples while the beat trips along at a dependable hundred-and-twenty b.p.m., like a chorus that’s just waiting for Neneh to arrive with the verses.
At other times there’s enough going on melodically and atmospherically that I don’t even think to ask, where’s the song?
Beat-based tracks make up perhaps a third of the album, and these are functional and fun. At times there’s a playful naivety, like the tune he calls ‘School’, which might have been composed on an old Casio keyboard.
But to me these are the least interesting parts of the record, and the bits I like best come from - and take me to - a place miles from any dance floor. ‘Harpsichord’ rotates on a simple circular chord sequence while Hebden improvises spidery melodies on a harpsichord, until it seems to morph into some other kind of instrument. It’s meditative yet animated, it creates an environment and populates it with ideas, and for whatever reason it suits my mood. Sometimes Hebden’s environments come straight from his electronic toolbox; at other times they draw on the natural world. And the album is full of identifiable outdoor sounds; birds, insects, wind and water.
Sometimes those natural sounds appear to have been the inspiration for his electronic ones. A track called ‘Insect Near Piha Beach’ presumably has its origins in his last visit to New Zealand. But I don’t think it is just the power of suggestion that makes me hear these busy skittery rhythms as the amplified scratchings of local invertebrates.
I have no idea what the title Sixteen Oceans refers to; there are only five oceans on this planet, as far as I know. Still, the name conjures images of travel and open spaces and so does the music. Though Hebden is playful with titles, there’s nothing here that instructs us in exactly what or how we should be feeling. You can listen to this music and make up your own story. It’s a varied and inventive album, with dance tracks that almost work like pop songs, scattered around a core of warm, atmospheric instrumentals, and it all feels to me like a celebration of life.
Murder Most Foul by Bob Dylan
The most celebrated lyricist of the age gave us all something to ponder last week when, out of the blue, he dropped his first new original song in almost a decade.
One can only speculate as to why he chose this moment, with the world locked in the grip of a pandemic, to release a 17-minute elegy to John F. Kennedy. Of course being Dylan, the song seems to be about much more than that, and he comes closest to spelling out its underlying lesson in the penultimate verse when he sings:
The soul of a nation’s been torn away
It's beginning to go into a slow decay
And that it's thirty-six hours past Judgment Day.
Bleak stuff indeed. But I’ve fast forwarded to the end of the song, and there’s a lot that happens before then.
Right from the start Dylan leaves no doubt that sees a conspiracy in the Kennedy killing, though his finger doesn’t necessarily point to the usual suspects. Oswald and Ruby play only bit parts, and he doesn’t even name the C.I.A. or K.G.B.
The foes in this song seem to be supernatural ones, and disembodied voices mutter darkly of unpaid debts. At one point Dylan refers to the whole thing as a magic trick. And at the end of the first verse, just before the refrain he borrows from Shakespeare and the ghost of Hamlet’s father, he introduces another spirit that runs through the song: that of the legendary deejay Wolfman Jack.
From this point on, the song becomes the kind of collage of cultural artefacts, dark jokes, jolting juxtapositions and outrageous rhymes that Dylan’s been perfecting ever since his ‘115th Dream’. But where in the past it could often seem quite random - like, what was Shakespeare doing talking to those French girls in the alley in ‘Memphis Blues Again’? - here all the scattered iconography seems to join up. ’A Nightmare on Elm St’, for instance, is one of several movies he references, but Elm Street was also the actual Dallas site of the Kennedy assassination. And from Elm he slides easily to Ellum, and a quote from ‘Deep Ellum Blues’, an old song the Grateful Dead often played; of course Deep Ellum is a neighbourhood of Dallas. And he rhymes the ‘Deep Ellum’ line (‘When you're down on Deep Ellum, put your money in your shoe’) with Kennedy’s famous one about asking not what your country can do for you. It’s an intricate if free-associative jigsaw puzzle he’s constructed here.
From the Dallas shooting, Dylan leads us on through the ‘60s, and he is hardly the first historian to identify the significance of the Beatles’ arrival in the US, just weeks after the Kennedy killing. (‘Hush, little children, you'll understand, The Beatles are comin', they're gonna hold your hand’.) There’s Woodstock, Altamont, the Acid Queen from Tommy and, for some reason I haven’t yet decoded, a line from Gone With The Wind. Occasionally it seems like he’s wandered off topic, yet he keeps bringing it back to Kennedy, who he casts as narrator for most of these lines; already a ghost, like Hamlet’s father.
Having introduced Wolfman Jack in the first verse, he brings him to centre stage for the fourth and fifth, in which the dead Kennedy begins to request songs from the lupine-voiced broadcaster; laments to be sung in his memory. He begins with death ballads: ‘Tom Dooley’ and ‘St James Infirmary’, ‘Only the Good Die Young’. But as the verses roll on, it seems the caller has become Dylan, as he begins to recite a litany of favourite songs and musicians, with a few comedians and a couple of gangsters hidden amongst them.
Though the apocalyptic tone may be timely, I don’t imagine this song is something Dylan just whipped up in the past week. On his website he calls it “an unreleased song we recorded a while back”. Yet the tone of it recalls his more recent concerts, in which he has used this confiding and deliberate voice, half-sung, half-spoken, while accompanying himself like this on piano to explore some of his oldest songs in an almost free-form fashion. So my bet is it was written and recorded some time in the past couple of years, during a gap in his heavy touring schedule.
As the longest single song Dylan has ever released, pundits have been quick to categorise it alongside acknowledged magnum opuses like ‘Desolation Row’ and ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’.
While it’s length alone doesn’t qualify it as a masterpiece, ‘Murder Most Foul’ is certainly a significant piece of work; and after the past seven years, in which Dylan’s recorded output has consisted solely of covers from the Great American Songbook, I wasn’t sure I’d hear anything as powerful as this from him again.
Sure, with its ostensible subject located deep in the 60s, I can understand why anyone from Gen X on might dismiss the whole idea of this track with an ‘Okay, boomer’. But one only has to hear a few bars of this sustained, spooky soliloquy to recognise a voice that speaks to the ages.
Getting Sober for the End of the World by Darren Watson
Local artists have been responding to the lockdown by offering online concerts or surprise new releases, and among them is a new song from local bluesman Darren Watson that might have been purpose-built for these times.
In ‘Getting Sober For the End of the World’ he is preaching sobriety and staring down the apocalypse, but with t carnival horns and his lovely swaggering guitar there still seems to be a party going on. It’s a taster for the album he’s got coming out later in the year, and from the sounds of this it should be just the tonic.