There's practically no other way this could've gone for Guy and Howard Lawrence. Just over two years ago, Settle and its pack of effusive dance floor earworms dominated charts, raked in critical acclaim and catapulted the careers of everyone involved. Disclosure's debut full-length wasn't ubiquitously adored, but it was an album that everyone talked about. Which actually put the brotherly 20-somethings in a precarious position after the dust settled: now these talented hitmakers have a stratospheric streak to maintain, not to mention a major label calling the shots. As such, it can be difficult at times to fault Disclosure for how their second LP turned out, if only because their lightning-in-a-bottle circumstances practically set up whatever came next to be either a disappointment or simply more of the same.
So goes Caracal, an overstuffed album whose handful of worthy singles are diminished by the licensing cash grabs that pad its tracklist. "Magnets," which features pop sensation Lorde, is three-plus minutes of toothless, workshopped radio fodder. The song does so little with its swaying bounce that it all seems to exist solely to hold the featured singer's name. This state of play is established from the beginning: "Nocturnal" sounds less like Disclosure and more like Junior Boys remixing The Weeknd for Top 40 rotations. And while that's not exactly terrible—after all, those incandescent pads compliment Abel Tesfaye's faux-Michael Jackson falsetto fairly well—it has next to nothing to do with why anyone fell for these guys in the first place. Instead of a youthful resurrection of mainstream garage's undeniable exuberance, "Nocturnal" is harmless, average dance-pop, and there's certainly no lack of artists looking to make a buck in that racket.
Disclosure reclaim their essence in sections, so there are undoubtedly some very good songs peppered throughout Caracal. In the first half, "Holding On" and "Hourglass" fan what remaining embers weren't extinguished by "Nocturnal," with their bobble-headed shimmy, rich production and vocal performances from Gregory Porter and Lion Babe respectively. No question why those two heaters were among the earliest singles. Sam Smith does his due diligence on "Omen," careful to skirt any overt nods to "Latch" while reminding us why that song was everywhere for at least a year. His delivery is expectedly soulful and high-reaching, and the Lawrences give him a warm, effective pop song to play with.
Howard Lawrence takes to the mic himself on four songs. His range is far more limited than, say, Miguel or Jordan Rakei (both of whom give Disclosure's clubby blueprint some welcome R&B overtones), so the multiple appearances feel ill-advised. Despite solid hooks, "Molecules" plants Howard in a boogie-inspired house swagger that leans too close to Chromeo's tired schtick, and "Jaded" overextends his abilities with a shameless attempt at another "Latch." Rollicking sidewinder "Echoes," a callback to how much fun Settle could have with a dance floor, is among Caracal's more satisfying tracks, and the singer/producer sounds as confident and distinctive as a songwriter with his chops should.
With only a small number of lasting moments, Disclosure's latest relies largely on the quick fixes found in hackneyed idioms and half-remembered nostalgia. On the effervescent "Superego," London singer Nao sounds uncharacteristically like an AlunaGeorge replacement, made to coo line after line of clichés and lazy wordplay. ("You're stringing it out like a symphony," goes the unfortunate chorus.) In fact, the lyrics in general are, at best, vehicles for delivering sticky melodies. "Jaded" might have the record's most vapid stanza when Howard cries, "Why oh why do you have to lie / What are you afraid of / We know what you're made of." The record's sole non-vocal cut doesn't do any better. It won't help to know that "Bang That" is essentially a soulless reskin of "Pass Out" by Detroit's Filthiest, but even taken at face value it sticks out like the canned, obligatory banger that it so egregiously is. Nevermind that its sub-Dirtybird booty house can't hold a candle to "When A Fire Starts To Burn" or "Grab Her." All of which is to say that attentive listening doesn't do Caracal any favors.
Wrapping up the album is "Afterthought," and it's the closest thing to a singular Disclosure song that doesn't immediately recall Settle. A sense of growth exudes from the ballad's thoughtful production details, even-handed pacing, heartwarming coda and sumptuous vocal harmonies. It's among the brothers' best work, and punctuates a record that trades such affecting moments for rehashes of prescribed formulas. Caracal has the effect of a magician performing a trick twice in a row, rendering once clandestine, miraculous movements suddenly obvious, over-rehearsed and unnatural.
Tracklist01. Nocturnal feat. The Weeknd
02. Omen feat. Sam Smith
03. Holding On feat. Gregory Porter
04. Hourglass feat. Lion Babe
05. Willing & Able feat. Kwabs
06. Magnets feat. Lorde
08. Good Intentions feat. Miguel
09. Superego feat. Nao
11. Masterpiece feat. Jordan Rakei
13. Moving Mountains feat. Brendan Riley
14. Bang That