Guy and Howard Lawrence — the brothers who make up ascendant duo Disclosure — are a little like the Joffrey and Tommen Baratheon of dance music. For those of you who aren’t Game of Thrones fans, this means they’re young, British, and can’t help but look a little smug. (I’m not casting any aspersions on their parentage or their inclination toward pure evil.) The key detail is that, like those fictional Baratheons, the boys of Disclosure sit on a throne many people would have you believe they don’t deserve.
Joffrey and Tommen’s was made of repurposed swords; Guy and Howard’s is made of recycled beats, chart certifications, and essays about the state of British electronic music. Caracal is their second full-length album, and it represents something curious: an abdication of their throne. When the album’s at its best, it finds the Lawrence brothers completely embracing pop craftsmanship, leaving Settle’s club-oriented heaters behind.
Dance music was Disclosure’s Trojan horse
It wasn’t always obvious that Disclosure were going to spearhead the renaissance of an entire subgenre. Their early singles were catchy and structurally sound, but fit firmly within existing British dance music paradigms. They had their minds pried open by Untrue and "Hyph Mngo," pushed backwards into garage and 2-step, and built their songs using those constituent pieces. Their connection to pop was tangential at best; they were skilled synthesists from the jump, but never innovators.
All of that changed near the end of 2012, when the Lawrences found themselves working with an as-yet-unknown British vocalist named Sam Smith. Together they made "Latch," a song that remains this decade’s prototypical piece of dance-pop. There’s no such thing as a perfect song, but "Latch" comes close: it’s economic, beguiling, and precise.
The song crept onto year-end lists at the end of the year and kept rising from there, and it was the engine behind the duo’s celebrated 2013 debut Settle. By the time it reached the American top 10 in July 2014 — almost two years after its initial release — it had blazed a trail for a dozen other musicians working with similar sounds. Duke Dumont, Gorgon City, Naughty Boy, Rudimental, Clean Bandit, Kiesza, Secondcity: they all achieved their biggest (or only) success in Disclosure’s wake.
So what’s motivating the duo’s decision to leave dance music behind? In part, it’s a tacit acknowledgement of market forces. All of the songs and artists mentioned above pull from the rich and varied history of British dance music; their beats, textures, and sampling techniques had been germinating in the country’s streets and clubs for the better part of a decade, or had been part of an earlier commercial wave (like garage c. 2000).
Dance music in 2015 has global roots
Meanwhile, the most recent wave of dance music that’s primed for pop crossover in 2015 has global roots, specifically tropical or Balearic ones — look to Kygo, to Felix Jaehn, to Robin Schulz. Look to Justin Bieber, the nakedly commercial canary in your dance-pop coal mine: "What Do You Mean?" sounds like Disclosure the way a mango tastes like a soufflé. There are four songs in the current British top 10 singles you could file under "tropical house"; there are no Disclosure songs. ("Omen" peaked at #13; other singles barely scraped into the top 50.)
The Lawrence brothers are also interested in compositional legitimacy, something they’ve shamelessly pursued since "Latch" started to bubble onto charts almost three years ago. They’re proud of their light touch with structure and pace, their funky time signatures, and the versatility of the songs lying underneath their chosen arrangements, and they’ve taken conspicuous potshots at what they perceive as lesser dance music. "We’re trying to bring class and soul into the songwriting," said Howard in a 2014 interview with Billboard. "[We’re] using jazz chords that have emotion instead of boring, stabby EDM triads… You can play ‘Latch’ in a massive nightclub or cover it in a jazz ensemble."
The album values gloss, smoothness, agility, and control
With quotes like that in the bank, their oft-antagonistic relationship with dance music’s core fans isn’t a surprise — and neither is Caracal’s sound. This isn’t a record interested in aggression, intensity, or speed — it values gloss, smoothness, agility, and control. Its highlights involve guests who are pop stars in their own right: The Weeknd, Lorde, Miguel. Opener "Nocturnal" could fit right alongside Abel Tesfaye’s Beauty Behind the Madness highlight "In the Night," glittering like a disco ball; "Magnets" draws out Lorde’s mystery and romanticism and casts it in a brighter light than usual. (She gets to deliver a perfectly Lorde-ian line: "Pretty girls don’t know the things that I know.") Best of all is "Superego," a strobing, featherweight collaboration with rising British R&B singer Nao. All of these songs are meant for the dinner table or bedroom, not the dance floor, and they lack the kinetics of Settle at its slowest and least clubby. They’re still excellent.
If anything, the dance-oriented songs on Caracal suffer from a lack of interest. Jazz vocalist Gregory Porter sounds great on lead single "Holding On," but it feels like Disclosure-by-numbers: a skittering garage beat, a synth melody ripped from the playlist of the closest cool teen boutique, sampling and stuttering that might as well be read from a playbook. It exists to bridge a gap, not because it’s exciting or interesting to its composers. Penultimate track "Echoes," a tribute to the garage crossovers that marked the Lawrence brothers’ youth, feels just as perfunctory despite its reverence.
The song that ends up closing the loop on Caracal is a naked attempt to recapture the magic of the song that brought Disclosure to this point. "Omen" brings back Sam Smith — now a Bond songsmith, a seat-filler for MOR-pop queen Adele, and out and proud — for a track that cribs almost everything from "Latch": its structure, its vocal dynamics, its rhythmic nod. There’s nothing wrong with a victory lap, especially one that’s built like a Swiss watch. But "Omen" lacks urgency, it lacks feeling, and it lacks investment compared to both "Latch" and the best songs on Caracal. Once you’ve heard what else they can do, it doesn’t take you anywhere.
It’s looking more and more like dance music was merely the Trojan horse Disclosure used to gain a foothold in the world of pop music. That isn’t a jab at the genre or their work within it: it’s worthy of respect — and not just the kind rooted in the sort of snoozy, jazzy prestige the Lawrence brothers want so desperately — and Settle remains an exciting, invigorating debut. And I don’t think Disclosure acted with any deceptive intent, either. They made Settle and the singles that preceded it at an age where almost everyone is still figuring out what they want and where their interests really lie. Caracal is a transitional record, another step toward Disclosure’s ultimate landing zone. They’re still between kingdoms; it’s only a matter of time before they find a new throne.