Is Disclosure a Victim of Its Own Good Taste?
What exactly was Disclosure good at, anyway?
This is the question I’ve been asking myself in the wake of Caracal, the limp new album from brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence, whom you may know from their song “Latch,” sung by a then-nascent Sam Smith. With their new album the Lawrences boil themselves down to their most formulaic, which raises a sort of elemental question: What was the magic in that formula in the first place?
Disclosure, at their best, displayed an instant mastery of the game of tension and release that defines pop music. Their most memorable tracks—“Latch,” of course, their remix of Jessie Ware’s “Running,” “You & Me”—are what I imagine it feels like to jump out of an airplane. The verses are a total headrush, but then the chorus hits, a parachute unfurls, you start to float, and everything feels right and stable. Yet, if this were to be a calling card, it would be an imperceptible one. Innately understanding how to execute a pop song can make you rich and famous and beloved, but it’s kind of also the one requirement for writing a pop song.
As such, Disclosure was always working with thin margins. I played their debut album Settle over and over but had trouble defending it to people over drinks. It was an album that spoke to me, but I also immediately understood how someone else could listen to it and feel nothing. The album is so smoothly constructed that it almost feels automated. This is a classic argument against pop music, but Settle’s relentless precision helped comfort me whenever the world felt too chaotic. The final track, a midtempo sedative titled “Help Me Lose My Mind,” is instructive in this regard.
But this was a highly personal reaction, itself rooted in my own biases and predilections. Why did anyone else care about Disclosure?
If you’ve read about them at all, you might know that the Lawrence brothers stumbled into a changing of the guard atop British pop music that ultimately trickled out across Europe and over to us. The duo—and eventual cohorts like the deejay Duke Dumont and the ensemble Rudimental—stood in contrast to the neon garishness of big-tent EDM. Pop music can often feel like it moves in waves, with each subsequent breach changing the direction of the current as a reaction to whatever came before it. Where EDM was thunderous and sloppy and fully digitized, the wave Disclosure helped set off was meticulous and proper and soulful. EDM wanted to crush your skull, but Disclosure’s songs were arranged so neatly that every drum sounded like a pin dropping inside the track. (You could see this general dynamic most succinctly in the return of Daft Punk, who, with an album released two weeks before Disclosure’s debut, abandoned the maximalist house music that influenced a generation of EDM wunderkinds in order to recreate the music those DJs’ parents listened to.)
Disclosure, essentially, offered up good taste. As EDM continued on its cultural takeover, Disclosure provided the ultimate step back. If EDM felt wrong to you, well, here was its antithesis. Disclosure’s music was openly cool-sounding—snobby, even. And it worked. The word “tastemaker” gets thrown around a lot, but Disclosure were at the front of a small batch of artists that (temporarily, at least) shifted taste on a grand scale. It mattered that the songs happened to be good, but it also didn’t.
Caracal, almost predictably so, is what happens when you get swallowed by your own wave. The album is even more tasteful than its predecessor, so much so that it almost feels gluttonous and weirdly sickening. Have you ever ordered a shitload of sushi and then halfway through eating it just wanted to quit and go get a slice of pizza? That’s essentially what it’s like to listen to Caracal. The refinement that once felt revelatory now feels ordinary, if not dated. What once commanded your attention is now forgettable. There’s a reason nobody remembers Motorola’s sequel to the Razr. (It was called the Razr2 and looked just like the first one.)
Caracal might be a strategic misstep, or maybe Disclosure’s second album never even had a chance. Good taste reigns in pop music now. Taylor Swift made an album inspired by her friends Haim, the sister trio whose album is what cool people wish pop music still sounded like (Fleetwood Mac). The Weeknd’s new album aims for timelessness by channeling Michael Jackson. Jason Derulo went from singing to your butt over beats that sound like farts to writing songs that reach back to disco and funk.
In popular dance music specifically, good taste has reigned for even longer. It was especially pronounced in the United Kingdom, where Keisza, Clean Bandit, Route 94, and Dumont all clocked number one hits in 2014 that used bouncy pianos and soulful singing to redirect contemporary house music back to the first wave of mainstream vocal house. (Some of those songs eventually crossed over to America.) Robin Schulz, a German producer, scored a global smash with his remix of Mr. Probz’s “Waves,” which would sound at home in a mix by DJ Harvey, the mystic DJ who is a paragon of good taste. Where, say, Frankie Knuckles or the Doobie Brothers had, since their peaks of fame, become the concerns of music nerds, you could once again draw a direct line back to them from some of the most popular songs in the world.
But right now, as Disclosure dropped their second album, the current is already in the process of shifting. One of the most popular songs in England right now is “Easy Love” (above), by a mostly unknown DJ who calls himself Sigala. “Easy Love” is an extension of the Disclosure revolution: it’s deeply reverent of house music and relentlessly uplifting. But it breaks away, too: where Disclosure works with vocalists to create original songs, Sigala drops vocals from Jackson 5’s “ABC” over a sunny piano loop and calls it a day. The result is a rather grating song that is almost jaw-dropping in its shamelessness. It is, in a word, tasteless.
There is now a whole rising sub-genre of tasteful-sounding house music that rolls around in kitsch like a pig in shit. It’s called “tropical house,” which is funny because house music that could be described as tropical is usually the province of world traveling DJs with envious record collections. This newfangled tropical house, though, is unabashedly corny.
Like “Easy Love,” tropical house tracks have beats that sound like something you would hear poolside at an expensive hotel, but the selection of vocals laid atop them feels almost carnivalesque. Consider Kygo, a leading innovator in the field of tropical house. One of his breakthrough tracks (currently sitting at 20.5 million plays on Soundcloud) is a remix of Ed Sheeran doing a cover of “No Diggity” and “Thrift Shop,” a sentence I couldn’t make up if I tried. But the beat driving this would-be monstrosity is a hit of slow-mo disco that instantly relaxes your muscles. That it’s paired with, you know, a fucking Ed Sheeran cover of “No Diggity” and “Thrift Shop” legitimately seems like a prank.
Tropical house often feels like a battle of oneupmanship in the category of cognitive dissonance. Another popular producer is Matoma, who is fond of making Frankenstein tracks out of Notorious B.I.G. samples fused with raps by people like Ludacris and Ja Rule, all pumped alive by loping keyboards and snoozing saxophones. By comparison, his remixes of Will Smith’s “Miami” and John Mayer’s cover of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” (Matoooomaaaaaa!) seem sane. (The Mayer remix, below, is really pretty incredible in spite of itself.) I hope he eventually names his album This Fucking Guy.
If you imagine EDM’s rebellious throw-it-all-at-the-wall take on dance music as one circle and Disclosure’s considered house revivalism as another, then tropical house is where the two meet and form a nearly perfect venn diagram. Of course, the timeline isn’t quite as linear as it might seem—Kygo was workshopping tropical house back in 2013, before Disclosure’s coup was fully realized. But this year, audiences have used tropical house to swing the pendulum back away from good taste. The world is reaching for that greasy slice of pizza.