For pop fans, the young London brother duo Disclosure’s 2013 debut, Settle, was something rare: Dance music that was both cutting-edge and easily digestible. Guy and Howard Lawrence’s sharp songwriting skills goosed clear verse-chorus structures (the U.S. top 10 crossover hit “Latch,” which launched Sam Smith’s triumphant solo career) and theme-and-variation sample-fests (the preacher sermon cut-up “When a Fire Starts to Burn”) to create the best dance album of 2013 — a singular record that both Berlin-bound uber hipsters and neon-clad festival-goers could agree on.
For the latter group, its impact went even deeper. Settle was a genuine line in the sand, one that helped move the new rave generation away from EDM’s blunt blare and toward quicker, slicker and subtler beats. The fact that “deep house” — which for decades intimated jazzy chords, R&B touchstones and a late-night glow — has become a millennial term that essentially amounts to “not-shallow house” can be laid, however unwittingly, at the Lawrences’ feet.
Disclosure’s sophomore album, Caracal, named after a species of African wildcat, doesn’t go wrong, precisely — it’s less a strikeout than a drawn-out walk. The Lawrences deserve credit for being unafraid to switch up their style: Most of the tracks’ tempos are slower than on Settle, a deceleration that’s very of the moment, as big-room DJs (and crossover hits like Felix Jaehn’s remix of OMI’s “Cheerleader”) move toward a hazier, more relaxed sound dubbed “tropical house.” If only that confidence were matched by the actual songs. Like too many dance artists before them, from Soul II Soul to Deee-Lite, Disclosure has traded in its debut’s hook-heavy, nonstop good time for a more relaxed follow-up designed for respectability beyond the EDM world — as if dance music couldn’t possibly be enough. The gliding basslines and bright synths of Settle mostly languish amid Caracal’s torpor. The Smith reunion “Omen” gallops at a comfortable tempo but never gathers the tension that made “Latch” an indelible modern-day classic. It’s like much of Caracal: immaculately constructed and stylish, but largely a nonevent.
As on Settle, a slew of guest singers appear, and befitting Disclosure’s new status, many are A-list: Miguel, The Weeknd, Lorde. But unlike how Smith and AlunaGeorge (with “White Noise”) broke out on the debut, the bigger names on Caracal offer mild variations on their usual shtick. The Weeknd’s falsetto is predictable and his charisma nonexistent on the drowsy “Nocturnal,” while Lorde’s dreamy “Magnets” is only mildly memorable: “Let’s embrace the point of no return,” goes the chorus, but the song sounds hedged, not heedless.
Occasionally, things get more lively. “Jaded” features Howard singing an ingratiating seesaw melody. “Ego,” which touts buttery vocals from London singer-songwriter Nao, side-eyes a self-flatterer in no uncertain terms (“When I tell you how it is, you don’t like it”) over blipping keyboards that sneak up rather than pounce. And “Holding On,” with jazz vocalist Gregory Porter (2015’s most unexpected dance MVP thanks to a Claptone remix of his “Liquid Spirit,” a dancefloor hit this spring), as well as “Echoes,” revisit the easy, effervescent style of Settle’s most compelling moments. But the Lawrence brothers seem to distrust their instincts, burying the latter near the end, right before closing ballad “Masterpiece” finishes the album with a snooze. Caracal is the kind of effort that diehard fans might convince themselves to appreciate, and then never play again.
The article originally appeared in the Sept. 26 issue of Billboard.