House music duo Disclosure released its much-anticipated sophomore album, “Caracal,” to great fanfare Sept. 25. Admittedly, fans’ hopes were extremely high after the great success of brothers Howard and Guy Lawrence’s debut album, “Settle,” which enjoyed widespread critical acclaim. In “Caracal,” the Lawrence brothers further hone their musical style while boasting a star-studded roster of featured singers, but the album falls slightly short of post-“Settle” expectations.
The album opens with “Nocturnal,” featuring current chart-topper Abel Tesfaye, better known by his stage name The Weeknd. The song prominently displays the artist’s distinct vocals over rapid electro-synth chords. Clocking in at almost seven minutes, the song is longer than anything Disclosure has done in the past, but it isn’t particularly memorable.
Next, the brothers try to replicate earlier success with “Omen” featuring Sam Smith. This is Disclosure’s third collaboration with Smith, following their work together on Smith’s hugely successful album “In the Lonely Hour” in 2014. Smith’s voice glides silkily and fluidly over the rhythms in “Omen,” yet the song lacks the same virally addictive character as “Latch.”
Perhaps the most interesting song on the album is the third track and lead single “Holding On” featuring jazz singer Gregory Porter. The song begins with a soulful howl from Porter that is sustained and pulsed for more than a minute before fading into syncopated beats and lyrics. The juxtaposition of the growling jazz vocals of Porter and the electro-pop beats manages to be both engaging and dynamic.
The next two tracks, “Hourglass” and “Willing & Able,” feature newcomers Lion Babe and Kwabs, respectively. Both make use of strong harmonies against thumping rhythms and percussion. Vocalists Jillian Hervey of Lion Babe and Kwabena Sarkodee Adjepong exhibit extreme promise, and eyes will surely be on them now that “Caracal” has been released.
New Zealand indie darling and chart-topper Lorde is featured on the sixth track, “Magnets,” the third promotional single from the album. Lorde’s sultry voice plays well against the drawn-out synth chords while setting the scene of “smoke and sunsets off Mulholland” and “the point of no return” where she meets a forbidden lover. The song has a catchy hook and will likely become a mainstay of the radio stations.
“Jaded,” with Howard’s own vocals, follows and immediately picks up the pace after the dreamy Lorde song. In interviews, the brothers have said that “Jaded” is meant to express their boredom with the electronic dance music scene. The song, in a tongue-in-cheek way, addresses the artists that came before Disclosure entered the music world to say that “the game [they] play has changed.”
The album’s pace slows a little again with the next song, “Good Intentions,” featuring Miguel. The song has more of a retro feel as Miguel apologizes to a lover: “I know I let you down / It wasn’t because your love wasn’t good enough.”
Another newcomer, Nao, makes a splash in “Superego” before the tenth song, “Echoes,” hits hard with comparatively aggressive beats, providing a welcome change of pace from the previous ballads and hazy vibes.
The regular edition of the album ends with “Masterpiece,” featuring Australian artist Jordan Rakei. Soothing rain and storm sounds begin the song before melting into the honeyed tones of Rakei serenading a lover: “Maybe you can’t see, oh, you’re the masterpiece.”
The iTunes deluxe edition of the album includes four more tracks: “Molecules,” a groovy bass jam; “Moving Mountains” featuring Brendan Reilly, a gentle, dreamy ballad; “Bang That,” a song more in the stereotypical dance and house music vein; and “Afterthought,” a bouncy track with rich development.
Overall, the album is full of catchy hooks and calculated beats. However, it never manages to escape the shadow of Disclosure’s debut album, which was all the more innovative for the way it managed to simultaneously break ground in house music and make it easily digestible for the masses. At times, the album feels noncommittal and undistinctive with the guest artists stealing the show. In general, “Caracal” is dreamier with stronger rhythm-and-blues influences and slower beats than those of “Settle,” which many critics have felt is too tame for the duo. Still, the monstrous success of its first album would be a hard shadow to escape for even the best musicians.
Where the brothers excel and have always excelled is in slick production and songwriting. “Caracal,” sharpened by co-writer James Napier, a frequent collaborator who also penned the new “James Bond” song featuring Sam Smith, manages to retain a cohesive sound despite featuring so many different vocalists. Yet, the polished sound of the album also is one of its downfalls, as the brothers lack the same playful nature that was a hallmark of their revolutionary past work.
With finesse beyond their years, it’s easy to forget that Disclosure is young (Guy is 24 and Howard is 21) and still trying to settle into its own. The evolution of the duo’s sound may have been unexpected to many fans and critics, but it is by no means a negative thing. After all, the brothers are still demonstrating the same sharp instincts and tasteful producing that got them noticed in the first place. Disclosure may have stumbled here and there on “Caracal,” but it certainly hasn’t lost momentum.
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