San Francisco – Fraternal UK electronic/garage-throwback duo Disclosure are no strangers to the theatrical. The brothers Lawrence—Guy (24) and Howard (21)—and their debut LP Settle released back in 2013 (which spanned fourteen gorgeous tracks), re-introduced the world to the forgotten genre of garage electronica, casting a diverse crew of collaborators to embody their vision. Settle contributed to the rise of many of these early cohorts, namely British chanteuse Jessie Ware, dance-pop group AlunaGeorge, and perhaps most notably, UK balladeer Sam Smith, whose featured spot on hit single “Latch” skyrocketed him to mainstream popularity. With Caracal, the duo’s sophomore LP, the collaborations still ring strong, though the brothers have started to come more into their own, forging an equilibrium between their featured artists and themselves by calming their production so as to not overpower any of their partners’ vocal contributions on such tracks (which make up two-thirds of the album). They’ve also blessed their audience with the addition of their own vocal work, provided by the younger Lawrence brother (Howard), whose only previous vocal contribution was on Settle’s “F For You.” The combination of both of these elements elicits a tasty blend of nostalgia and progress, pushing the ideal of popularizing the form of the evocative electronic song further into the public ear.
Settle was quite an achievement, especially by such young artists—and by young I mean both in terms of age as well as exposure—and it’s heartening to see they have yet to disregard their early success as beginner’s luck. Their skill in crafting a song that is both emotive and worthy of the dance floor is staggering and enviable. They are both at a ripe, pure age, in which the world has yet to turn on them, instilling a type of optimism that is rarely seen these days. I don’t say that to be patronizing, but rather as praise. These two brothers have tasted a fair amount of the supposedly sweet fruit that dangles from the tree of celebrity, yet they are coerced neither by the fascinating naiveté nor the bitter cynicism that such succulent morsels are often steeped in. Sure, their clout has grown since the release of their debut—so much that they were able to tempt some of modern pop’s most name-worthy artists (Lorde, The Weeknd, Miguel) to join them on this record—but it has done so in a way that does not jeopardize their original vision. Each track on Caracal bears that true Disclosure signature, scrawled elegantly across each song like a tattoo—a symbol of longevity that basically states, “We’re here to stay.”
Perhaps the biggest difference between Settle and Caracal is that the brothers Lawrence have drastically scaled back the production. Each song is still incredibly vibrant and tells its own unique story, yet does so with a welcome instrumental placidity that draws more attention to the vocals and lyrics, which are the dominant focus of the LP. These aren’t exactly the same brand of thumpa-thumpa songs we heard on Settle; instead Disclosure have effectively balanced the distribution of power between them and their numerous collaborators. There are virtually no instrumentals on Caracal, which, admittedly, may have some listeners pining for the raucous beats akin to Settle’s “Stimulation” and “Grab Her!” Such listeners can find solace in the penultimate track (and first single) of the album, “Bang That,” which, after a lengthy but hypnotic build, erupts dramatically into a firestorm of pounding mechanized percussion and a looping chorus of distorted spoken word, fringed with a constant high-pitched electric buzz and a smattering of spotty chirps that serve as the song’s only melodic aspects. It’s not quite at the same level as Settle’s meandering, harmonic instrumentals, but it’ll definitely get your foot tapping.
Much like Settle, Caracal is dominated by collaborations between the duo and a number of guest vocalists, whose various idiosyncrasies span a broad spectrum of influence and style. While there are several featured artists that are more or less beneath the proverbial radar (who may indeed become more notable following the release of this album), there are a few whose names boldly stand out, aided by their already reputable success. The sensational Sam Smith delivers another impressive performance on “Omen,” entwining his signature falsetto with Disclosure’s gurgling bass tones and magnetic backbeats as he sings achingly about a moment of realization that preempts the loss of a companion (‘I didn’t pay attention to the light in the dark’). The ever swoon-worthy Miguel offers his silky smooth voice to the tragically defeatist “Good Intentions,” while renowned jazz vocalist Gregory Porters tries to shake the demons of his past on “Holding On” (‘I ain’t hiding from the truth/When the truth won’t let me lie right next to you’).
Perhaps the most surprising alliances on Caracal come from two newcomers who have, in the last year or two, blown up faster than dynamite soaked in gasoline. New Zealand’s Lorde—the double platinum chanteuse who is still three years shy of being able to drink in the United States—fills out the LP’s sixth track “Magnets,” which takes the cake as the tamest song on Caracal as Lorde purrs about forbidden romance over a minimalist foundation of tribal sounding percussion and embers of interspersed synths that catch fire as each chorus approaches. The LP’s opener “Nocturnal” features none other than the beautifully mad Abel Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd. “Nocturnal” is perhaps the poppiest song on Caracal, and expertly blends The Weeknd’s bleak and twisted aesthetic with the pulsating energy of Disclosure. In fact, the synthesis of these two styles is so perfectly blended that it’s unclear as to whether this is a Disclosure track or a The Weeknd track, though in the true tradition of collaboration, it really belongs to both equally. It’s a monumental overture, evoking feelings of empathy, desperation, and danger (as most The Weeknd tracks do), ferociously setting not only the tone of the LP but also somewhat of a standard that the rest of the album must aim to meet or surpass. Fortunately, the following tracks do not disappoint.
The other artists tapped to work on Caracal feature a slew of newcomers, some of which have yet to release a full-length LP. Strong female vocals are provided by NYC-based Lion Babe on “Hourglass,” in addition to London-based Nao’s gyrating, soulful contribution to “Superego,” a track that takes its time as it slithers through a gooey, nectarine pool of crafty loops and chirruping electronic keystrokes. Australia’s Jordan Rakei is featured on Disclosure’s first slow-jam “Masterpiece,” while Brendan Reilly serves up 90s-RnB-throwback-realness with his cascading vocal stylings on “Moving Mountains.” Ghana-born Kwabs skillfully navigates the masterfully crafted “Willing & Able,” pouring on loads of tender lyrics that speak of devotion and resilience, all of which are soaked in his gorgeous, molasses-like timbre.
Four of the five tracks that the duo have produced themselves feature a brand new side of Disclosure we’ve only caught a glimpse of in the past, which is that they are now providing their own vocals for these independent songs. It’s sort of surprising that Howard Lawrence didn’t do more of this on Disclosure’s previous material, because he really is one hell of a vocalist. His range and delivery are startlingly impressive. Lawrence shines as an energetic and enigmatic narrator on the robust, fast-paced tracks “Jaded” and “Echoes” while also revealing a more vulnerable side on the album’s closer “Afterthought.” His most exciting vocal work takes place on “Molecule,” the ballsy and intriguingly arrogant twelfth track, on which he confidently guides us through the mindset of a shameless narcissist as he hones in on the object of his affection, incredibly convincing as the song’s pompous protagonist.
To those who don’t know, a caracal is a wild cat that roams around parts of southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. He lurks in the shadows, preying on whatever may cross his path, a silent killer. At first I wasn’t convinced that Caracal was a fitting title for Disclosure’s sophomore LP, but now I think I can see where they’re coming from. Much like the caracal, Disclosure snuck up on the public in the night, pouncing on us with the release of Settle in 2013. With this album, however, they seem to be comfortable edging back towards the shadows, off of the dance-floor and into the unknown world that skulks on the other side of the door. It’s a risky departure from the comfort offered by their original stomping grounds, but also quite necessary.
Not one minute of Caracal feels rushed or sloppy; it is a thoughtful, superbly crafted album that may ultimately be recalled as a pivotal transitional moment for the duo. The dance beats are still here, yes, but they are no longer defining Disclosure as an artistic entity. Caracal is Disclosure’s rolled double, it’s their ticket out of the prison that rigid genre specifications imposed by critics and “fans” often entomb certain artists within, suffocating them. What we get with Caracal is a collection of songs, songs that provide a gateway leading out of a single genus of music and into a world of future opportunities: the opportunity to expand artistic horizons, the opportunity to blur the lines between genres, the opportunity to overcome and redefine expectations. Caracal is a great album, yes, but more than that, it’s a step in a new direction. Disclosure are on the hunt. They’re coming for us, and instead of fighting back, we can find joy in surrendering to the beast.