Towards the end of 2013 it felt like dance music in general was chasing its own tail. There seemed to be an unquenchable thirst for peak-time hands-in-the-air anthems, but there was a diminishing return, a feeling as if it had all been done before. Almost like we were all chasing this high, a high that was never gonna feel as good as the first time. More often than not, you could hear the DJs shouting to get reactions from their audiences. Clearly, something was missing.
Right around this time, I discovered Disclosure and their debut album Settle.
Like I said, this was a time when it felt like everyone had the dial cranked to 10 and were trying to find 11. Disclosure came along with an album that felt better with the dial pulled back a bit. They had a clear idea of what they wanted to do and didn’t over-think the execution. The timing was perfect. These guys had their own lane but still ended up connected to the dance scene. In retrospect, maybe it was buzzwords such as “deep house” that made them appear to be more associated with the EDM scene than they’d maybe like to be. It felt related to the dance world, but clearly existed outside of its boundaries.
The Disclosure sound really reminds me of the cool moment in the late ’90s/mid 2000s when garage stuff coming out of the U.K., the house music coming out of New York, Chicago and surrounding areas, and the “golden era” of hip-hop and R&B all ran together. Lots of DJs and producers at the time acknowledged the vibe that fused all those sensibilities. At the time, I was out going to raves, and it makes me feel like an old man telling you this.
Settle had some seriously talented vocalists on it. Many have become quite well known (including Sam Smith and AlunaGeorge), but at the time were known only to listeners who had an ear to the ground. All of these pieces were exciting, and once aligned, they set the hype train in motion for Disclosure not only in dance music but into the pop world as well — they had a top ten U.S. hit with “Latch.” Much of the attention Disclosure enjoyed the first time around had as much to do with the timing of their ideas as it did with their actual creative vision and execution.
So now it’s 2015. Sadly, not much has changed in the dance world at large. There are still DJs who scream at their audiences, but there has been a shift towards more low-key, vocal-driven dance hits, and the musical landscape in dance-world feels a lot more dynamic. Some great records this year opened up the headroom, including Major Lazer’s album Peace Is the Mission, Jack Ü’s single “Where Are U Now” featuring Justin Bieber, RL Grime’s Void, Jamie xx’s In Colour and Porter Robinson’s Worlds.
Caracal, Disclosure’s second album, falls into this list as well.
There are some noticeable differences this time around. Settle kinda had an unpolished feel to it which I quite enjoyed, but there is a kinda pop sheen on a lot of Caracal. It reminds me a bit of the differences between Tame Impala’s older albums versus their new album Currents in the sense that the vocals and production feel cleaner and tighter. This time, Disclosure has A-list vocalists such as the Weeknd, Sam Smith (again), Lorde and Miguel — all of whom deliver on expectations. “Nocturnal” featuring the Weeknd is my personal favorite, with an infectious hook and a drum loop that reminds me of Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” which was my personal anthem for a hot minute. There are even some nostalgic moments that remind me of old Green Velvet stuff. Takes me back to being seventeen years old, blagging my way into raves all weekend and then somehow making it to class on Monday morning.
Caracal is an expertly crafted album in every way. There were some moments that seemed a bit tedious, but overall I was immersed. I’ve just moved into a new house, so I listened as I unpacked some boxes, and I lost track of time. I time-traveled. That’s a high compliment for any album. I was truly locked in, mentally. Caracal doesn’t leave me with much to complain about.
Now I’m gonna sound like a real hipster, but the fact that I don’t have much to complain about is actually the one complaint I have about Caracal. It doesn’t really feel like these guys were interested in taking any serious risks. Which is totally cool on one hand, but on the other kinda leaves me with not much to talk about.
While I appreciate that they wanted to stick to their formula, I’m kinda disappointed there aren’t any unexpected twists. Because there aren’t any mistakes, it feels a bit safe. They weren’t gonna take any wild risks for the sake of making jaded assholes like me raise an eyebrow, which is fine, I suppose. They really tightened up their formula and topped it off with some incredibly hot vocalists. They had to have known that it would be difficult for most people not to like the album.
But I’m left wondering, “Where are they gonna go from here?” Even a dedicated Disclosure fan might be a little less interested if the next album felt like the previous two, even if somehow they found a way to perfect their sound for a third go-round.
The hardest part of following up a great moment is deciding what to do next. It’s easy to get caught up in the “analysis paralysis,” a condition a lot of artists suffer from: everything sucks and nothing is good enough, and the record keeps getting scrapped or pushed back. Sometimes the way forward means challenging your audience. Sometimes it means going away for a while, disappearing and reinventing. David Bowie was really fucking good at that, creating an alter ego for an entire album, as on Ziggy Stardust, then figuratively killing him off to make way for the next artistic incarnation. It was a genius way to free himself creatively and remove audience expectations.
The higher you go, the harder it is to one-up yourself. At a certain point you have to take some big risks — while making sure not to lose the things about yourself that your fans enjoy.
I’m enjoying Caracal, but I’m interested in where Disclosure goes from here. They have a big challenge ahead of them, but that’s an exciting place for the fan and the artist. As far as I know, they haven’t resorted to screaming at their audience to get the reaction they’re looking for, and that is a great indication they’re on the right track. It gives me faith in the dance scene, and it gives me faith as a musician that dance music can be more than that.