Just Shut Up and Listen: Disclosure's 'Caracal', Reviewed

The UK dance duo's fun, vibrant sophomore album fails to meet expectations—and that's fine.
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The UK dance duo's fun, vibrant sophomore album fails to meet expectations—and that's fine.

By the time whispers of a second LP became audible to more than just three or four qualified people, Guy and Howard Lawrence were staring down the barrel of a terrifying potential future. Lest anyone forget, Caracal was more-or-less announced via a published memo denying allegations that certain tracks off Disclosure’s outstanding debut LP Settle featured plagiarized lyrics. Of course the brothers were innocent, but it was a moot point. An accusation of this magnitude is enough to throw a wrench in even the smoothest of wheels, and though the memo ended on a high note, Caracal seemed doomed by association from the very start.

From the standpoint of authorship, this really sucks, because Settle was phenomenal. Whether either of them would admit it now, the Lawrence brothers dedicated most of 2013 to stealing back the term “dance music,” and giving it a shiny new definition—one that celebrated tastemakers like J. Dilla, Frankie Knuckles, The Artful Dodger and Joy Orbison. This was dance music with class; amid the ceaseless stream of overproduced, overhyped and altogether overblown EDM, Disclosure opted for a history lesson, training Settle’s scope on the uber-influential UK garage and deep house of the 90s.

Not only was this move highly intelligent, it was vital to the preservation of the genre. Dance music needs minimalism in order to retain its warmth, so by delivering past-leaning simplicity with present-leaning hybrid vigor, Disclosure introduced the world to a more subtle, more tactical, more pleasing and altogether-better interpretation of dance music. The genre needed a do-over, and it needed the Lawrence brothers to lead the charge.

Cards on the table: Settle was probably too good. While certain tracks offered some robustness to the Top 40 (“Latch” propelling Sam Smith into the cosmos of super-stardom, “White Noise” giving AlunaGeorge street-cred), others veered off into house-heavy hooks and four-on-the-floor sensibilities (“Grab Her!” “Stimulation”, “When A Fire Starts To Burn”). It was 2013’s Rhythm Nation—a visionary album curated for a misinformed audience of disenchanted, internet-dependent know-it-alls.

Then came “Bang That”, a monolithic banger that dropped on May 1 of this year. The very first track we received from Disclosure post-Settle, “Bang That”, was a crude-yet-formulaic exploration that seemed to portend louder bass, more simplified production and more structured sampling. For some, it was too much power; for others, it was a perfect blend of where they’ve been and where they’re going.

Little did anyone know that, in reality, it wasn’t either of those things. “Bang That” was a false positive, a bonus release that didn’t even kind-of suggest the Lawrence brothers’ intent. Because where they went with Caracal is, all things considered, sort of the opposite direction in which “Bang That” headed.

Perhaps that’s the biggest issue with Disclosure’s second LP: It deviates too far away from what we’ve come to expect. Early opinions cite Caracal as being boring, duplicative, airy and forgettable. Critics have lauded the production, but overall, the sophomore outing has been met with ambivalent criticism.

Still, “ambivalent” and “negative” are far from the same thing. Though Caracal tackles relatively new opposition, some serious on-record wins make it a fun, vibrant outing. For starters, Disclosure somehow gathered an even more impressive roster of guest vocalists for Caracal than they did for Settle. Hot off the success of sophomore LP Beauty Behind The Madness, The Weeknd sets the bar impossibly high on album opener “Nocturnal”, gliding in and out of traditional verse-chorus structures like he invented them himself.

Perennial studio partner Sam Smith returns with “Omen”, a sultrier, sturdier number that showcases Smith’s phenomenal range of motion while dropping the BPM and upping the emotional ante. “Latch” was fun and anthemic, but “Omen” operates more as Disclosure’s proof of intent, providing depth and glide in place of house-hook dynamics. It’s a welcome change of pace, fitting snuggly into Caracal’s pop-centric structure.

And while we’re on the subject of structure, Lorde’s “Magnets” might as well serve as a pop music blueprint. Light and whimsical, “Magnets” features hyper-polished production, catchy hooks and a bounce-around chorus only Lorde could conceive.

This brings up an interesting note regarding Disclosure’s creative process. Guy and Howard Lawrence insist on writing and producing with their guest vocalists. That way, tracks never feel forced or superficial. Instead, they sound organic and wholesome—something that would almost always fit within the existing catalog of the guest vocalist.

Which makes tracks like “Good Intentions” so absolutely unreal. As one of Caracal’s decided highlights, “Good Intentions” features Miguel lending Disclosure the sex appeal they never knew they were missing. Smooth and calculated, “Good Intentions” warrants at least one run through the entire album. And while you’re at it, check out Wildheart.

But like Settle, Caracal’s primary victory comes in its recognition of pop music’s newest crop. “Hourglass” dishes a taste of Lion Babe, one of the UK’s most prominent up-and-coming R&B acts. Aside from sounding more like a Settle b-side than any other track on the album, “Hourglass” is easily one of the more enjoyable moments on Caracal.

No other track on the album, however, reaches the sonic maturity and tonal necessity of “Superego”. Let’s assume for the moment that the critics are right and that Caracal is a more lifeless version of Settle. If that’s the case, “Superego” is the only track on the entire album that rises to the level of pomp and circumstance as off-the-beaten-path thrillers like “January”, “Confess To Me”, and “F For You” ever did. If she doesn’t already have it, R&B upstart Nao deserves your attention. As “Superego” meanders seemingly aimlessly through low-fi hooks, hi-fi drops, and waterlogged samples, Nao weathers the storm with poise and finesse. Her vocals are crisp and unencumbered, giving “Superego” a delicious clear coat that exposes a genius that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Anyway, I’m not here to convince you that preliminary criticism of Caracal is wrong, because it’s not. But at a time when “unexpected” automatically means “inferior,” the Lawrence brothers need a champion—someone who insists on mining past the obvious variations and relenting in the face of a clear and present format change. And you know who that champion is? Me. That’s who. Is Caracal as huge and loud and groundbreaking as Settle? No, but Disclosure’s second album was never going to be as huge and loud and groundbreaking as Settle. So rather than lamenting the loss, check out what you’re missing. Because what you’re missing is terrific. B