There are several ways one might describe Disclosure's new album “Caracal.” Here's one: hits, toms, snaps, clicks, kicks and some synths. Another: a masterpiece. Save a few portions that cause the album to drag near the end, it is a truly exceptional work.
Typically, listening to a Disclosure track is like experiencing a wave in sonic form. The groove comes in first and departs last, commanding the listener’s attention from the first beat to the last fading synth. Since the rise of 1970-1980s era house and hip-hop and the advent of musical sampling, popular music has been all about the beat. The Lawrence brothers know this well, and, as was the case with their last album, “Settle,” it’s easy to recognize the borderline-obsessive attention they bring to their work. It's a sort of attention that seems to defy precedent most anywhere else in the electronic and popular music industries. Incredibly—impossibly—everything from their drums to their synths feel more organic, more special than ever before, from the crazy precision of housier tracks like “Holding On” to the subtle shakes and claps that fit underneath the rich organ and flanging baseline of “Willing and Able.”
This is Disclosure in three-dimensions—the duo often combines size and movement to great effect. “Nocturnal,” which clocks in at nearly seven minutes, is a weighty beginning. While that gravity initially feels sluggish, the track builds and builds. The forward momentum of the chords and insistent beat ushers in the rest of the album, especially when second, third, and fourth listens allow a holistic appreciation for the deliberate, slow movement of the piece as a whole. Meanwhile, “Hourglass” features a technicolor patchwork of sounds, with subtle plucks, hits, and strings supporting expertly harmonized vocals courtesy of Lion Babe’s Jillian Hervey. All of these pieces combine with a desperate sense of movement that gives Hervey's vocal line special salience as she insists "Time’s up!” before a wall of sound drops into a persistently catchy ball of reverb-heavy house.
Disclosure loves its up-and-coming collaborators. The duo once again rounds up a group of British niche talents, whose most compelling performances concentrate in the middle of the album. “Holding On” injects a slice of rich jazz with a mesmerizing [vocal line by Gregory Porter over a tumultuous house beat. “Willing & Able” stands out, mostly as a result of a smooth, sexy, and deeply stirring KWABS vocal that is arguably the most sincere, emotional performance of the entire album. Only Sam Smith’s legendary “Omen” vocals, which truly capture the resolve of a man determined to go “all in,” as he repeatedly and listlessly insists in the lyrics, is possibly more compelling. On “Magnets,” Lorde exemplifies her defiant, edgy style of performance. Sure, the track’s shimmering cowbells and snares burst brightly at the edges of this dark record, but even they can’t cut as sharply as the track’s lyrics.
Some vocal pairings make less sense than others. For instance, though “Nocturnal” features The Weeknd on vocals, “Masterpiece, ” with its big sparkling chords, background plucks, and a hip-hop beat, feels more in line with his style than the former track. Meanwhile, “Good Intentions” brings Disclosure and Miguel together in a more minimal production, but the vocal work just feels like a slightly smoother-than-normal stock Disclosure voice. Miguel’s presence is difficult to notice.
Even though they have a bevy of featured artists, Disclosure does well performing their own vocals, and this time they take center stage on “Jaded,” “Echoes,” “Molecules” and “Afterthought.” Like Calvin Harris before them, they have no illusions; they aren’t Sam Smith caliber singers, and they don’t have to be. In fact, as a duo as known for shirking away from the spotlight as for their fantastic music, their simple vocal choices fit their brand perfectly, somehow maintaining their anonymity while also epitomizing their famous, pure, not-quite-robotic sound. That said, “Echoes” feels a bit like old territory—it plays like one too many house tracks with a lack of identity other than “another Disclosure track.” Meanwhile, “Afterthought,” in combination with “Moving Mountains,” make for a relatively forgettable ending to the Deluxe version of an otherwise stellar album.
Is this the album fans were waiting for? There is no easy answer. Disclosure acolytes [have been known to argue over the group’s underground roots and its ever-increasing pop icon status as much as they enjoy their actual music. It is, however, apparent that Disclosure continues to masterfully balance genres. Don’t give “Caracal” just one listen. Give it five, then decide. If you are patient enough to abide a few minor stumbles, the genius of Disclosure’s soundshow will begin to emerge in subtle nuances offering an audiophilic lesson in sub-genres and the complexity of electronic music and its roots.