Monday, October 5, 2015

album review: 'caracal' by disclosure

There's no easy way to do this review.

And to some extent that's my fault, because the more I think about it, the more I feel I got into electronic music in the weirdest way possible. Last year, when I decided I wanted to push my comfort zone beyond trance and some of the greats like The Chemical Brothers, I started covering weird, critically acclaimed acts that were getting that acclaim by pushing boundaries. Acts like Levon Vincent and Objekt and Jlin and Arca were building a reputation for off-kilter, difficult electronic music, and even the ones that had a closer mainstream connection like Ghost Culture or Todd Terje or Jamie xx were still well outside. 

So when I went back to dig into Disclosure's critically acclaimed debut record Settle from 2013, I found myself distinctly underwhelmed. Yeah, 'Latch' had been everywhere, but as someone who never really loved that song, finding a record that played very much to that formula didn't really engage me all that much. Yes, there was a certain tightness to the progressions I appreciated, yes, many of the guest performances were solid, and yes, I don't see anything wrong with calling back to the trends of the past - hell, I wouldn't say this album is bad. But I was definitely baffled why this became the electronic album that captivated so many people and crossed over - if it wasn't for the murderer's row of guest stars, the production was sparse and the melodies weren't particularly interesting, with production that didn't do much more to enhance it. But again, I'm coming from a weird perspective here - I do see the appeal in certain settings and 'Help Me Lose My Mind' was indeed awesome, especially as an album closer thanks to London Grammar, but I wasn't as blown away as I hoped.

And as such, when I started hearing the buzz that Caracal, the sophomore release from Disclosure with more expensive guest stars like The Weeknd and Lorde, was considered a step back from Settle, I prepared myself for the worst. Did it at least manage to be passable?

Well, depends how you define passable. Is it offensive or outright grating like other records I had the misfortune of hearing today? No, not at all, but it does confirm my suspicions about Disclosure as not nearly being as interesting as everyone said they were, and only highlights their weaknesses more starkly. Again, like with most dance albums, they can be hard to evaluate outside of a club environment, but interestingly I think a closer examination of the production shows exactly where things aren't working, and that's true across any setting.

But before we get to that, let's get the least important element out of the way: the writing and themes. Honestly, it'd be a stretch to say we get anything in the latter category, but Caracal does have the feel of a very confrontational album, either in the moments where the relationships want to take things more seriously or outright break up, or in the aftermath where they're just trying to move on - and on tracks like 'Hourglass', there's overlap between the two topics. It's weirdly aggressive for this sort of sound, and if it wasn't for the vocal performances that smooth over some of the rough edges, it can easily get a little obnoxious. The opener by The Weeknd is a prime example, where he's wallowing in the depressed moody aftermath of the night and it feels like a song that was cut from Kiss Land and should have stayed there. That's not saying there aren't moments that stand out in a good way: Sam Smith's work on the hindsight 'Omen' has grown on me a bit, 'Superego' is a song about forcibly puncturing arrogance and reclaiming empathy that actually comes off decently, and I actually liked the broad strokes of the album closer and self-esteem anthem 'Masterpiece'. Of course, the best writing on this album comes courtesy of Lorde on 'Magnets', mostly because it's the most creative in terms of setting the scene - a guy leaving her behind after their summer fling and Lorde trying to sustain whatever's left by trying to go to the place of no return - and with my favourite metaphor - that magnets melting in the sun line is a great one if you're a physics nerd like me. Of course, they also have their low points. Miguel delivers a pretty bad turn on the dumping song 'Good Intentions' - the whole 'it's not you it's me' routine never comes out sounding good - and then there's 'Jaded', their stabs at an EDM scene they feel has gotten stale and samey and exploiting of fresh ideas to stay relevant - which I might buy coming out of nearly any other act except Disclosure. 

Because here's the thing: put aside the fact that Disclosure is not reinventing the electronic sound or are remotely close to experimental - it's UK garage blended with traces of R&B, and I'm okay with that - provided, of course, you do it well. And I'd argue from an instrumental standpoint, Disclosure doesn't really have a lot to offer in terms of variety of melodies or synth tones. You have a wiry beat, a thicker, more punchy bass, oily, blubbery synth lines that ebb in and out off of choppy hi hats and snaps that occasionally get a little more interesting thanks to the background melody or slightly more textured percussion, like the brittle beat against the misty swell on 'Hourglass' or the bongos against the noisier beat on 'Magnets' or the tighter instability on 'Superego'. But the progressions within the songs are often pretty minimal, with few changeups or crescendos or even melodies that evolve or to do more to support the vocal lines besides the occasional fade in-and-out. I don't get any climax points to drive the more intense emotions off of this album, and that's an issue. 

But that's composition, and ultimately if you take this to a dance floor, most people won't care that the beats and melodies aren't switching or evolving... and this is where production comes in, specifically the layering. And the issue's tricky to recognize, and I only noticed it first when I played this record on my stereo: the bass volume is so prominent in the beat that it cuts in and overlaps with the vocal line and melodies. It's not so much support as it is its own entity... which can work if you structure your vocalists to ride off of that cadence. The problem is that Disclosure's guest stars are a set of R&B and neo-soul crooners who are riding against the melody instead of the beat, so when that beat starts chopping through their vocals, it feels clunky and completely disruptive of whatever groove this album has. And that's another problem: maybe it's the slower tempo, but many of these tracks don't have the whip-thin tightness that gave Settle an immediacy and deft touch that did mostly work for it. This album simultaneously is choppy as hell with its melodies but doesn't have that tight roiling groove to drive momentum. And it gets worse when you realize how many of these vocalists would sound better against production that was more organic or at least wasn't so oily and smothered in increasingly muddy background textures, most of which flood to the forefront on the choruses and really don't flatter anyone, the worst cases being the overly cluttered 'Omen', the synth wave on 'Jaded', or the oddly airless vocal production on 'Holding On', 'Willing & Able', and 'Masterpiece'. With the exception of The Weeknd not impressing thanks to a complete lack of tightness and Miguel sounding completely tuned out, many of the vocal performers do great work - but the progressions feel like they're competing with them instead of complementing them, and that's a real problem the more Disclosure moves away from EDM and towards modern pop and R&B.

Look, I don't think this album is precisely bad as it is very, very average, and I think the backlash that Caracal is getting from some of the critical set and some fans is a little overstated. But again, I didn't think Settle was all that great either, so seeing a slight sophomore slump doesn't really surprise me in the same way. But I'm not saying this is good either - it's not really all that interesting, the melodies are bare-bones and do not stick with me, and the lyrics really toe the line between assertive and too confrontational for their own good. What this record feels like is that Disclosure got the bigger budget and the bigger stars, but didn't really have enough in the fundamentals to use them more effectively and ended up with a record that clashes instead of compliments. So for me, it's a strong 5/10, but I'm recommending this if you've liked Disclosure in the past. They aren't for me, but if you've been a fan in the past, give them a listen - you might be surprised. 

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