Disclosure and the problem of internet-sourced ’90s nostalgia

It’s common practice for musicians to look to the past for inspiration. Styles fall out of favor until a particular artist and set of cultural factors signals a resurgence. House music, or deep house more specifically, never really went away, but it exploded back into the mainstream a couple years ago at the hands of British duo Disclosure (brothers Howard and Guy Lawrence). With international hits like “Latch” featuring vocals from now-superstar Sam Smith, Disclosure’s pop-oriented take on late ‘80s deep house provided a “classier” alternative to the sweeping cheese of big-tent EDM that continues to dominate global charts. Now two years later, perhaps a bit taken aback by their own meteoric ascent, Disclosure’s second album, Caracal, attempts to slow down the cycle of lather, remix, repeat by literally putting the breaks on their tempos and also reconfiguring their sound ever so slightly into one less directly indebted to a specific place and time in music history. The only problem is that they’re still indebted to their previous success.

1990s nostalgia and stylistic references has reached a fever pitch in electronic music these past few years. Musicians extrapolating the scenes and sounds of early rave have found particularly ample footing, with some emulating signature breakbeat styles, but many finding unique ways of recontextualizing old synths and samples. A producer like Burial takes the skeletons of beats and breaks and layers them with ghosted versions of diva house vocal clips in a way that emotes a melancholic absence of rave in the artist’s contemporary London. In Lone’s “Crystal Caverns 1991,” cascading drums, piano stabs, and ambient synth pads are blended together with a sharpness and precision that sounds contemporarily digital despite so many old-school signifiers.

Disclosure, for better or worse, hewed closer to deep house as a matter of form on their debut, Settle, though their radio-ready arrangements did eschew the traditional 8+ minute structures built for club DJs. Still, Settle was largely emulative of the sounds booming within underground Chicago warehouses in the late 80s and early 90s. It’s a level of reverence that borders on replication, which raises some sticky issues for a couple of middle-class European white guys making a mint with the music of gay black Midwestern American subcultures. But whatever degree of credence one gives to those critiques, the EDM machine was set in motion at the first sign of smoke, and since then Disclosure’s impact of the mainstream has been profound, spawning their own fair share of imitators over the past two years.

Disclosure draws much more heavily from modern trends in R&B on Caracal

This brings us to Caracal, which, like so many follow-up albums, carries the baggage of expectations held over by its predecessor. If Settle fully embraced the perpetual wheel of cultural recycling (the ‘90s are back!), Caracal jumps right on board, but perhaps lets a little air out of the tires. Instead of explicitly four-to-the-floor rhythms, Disclosure draws much more heavily from modern trends in R&B on Caracal. Sure you could still dance to most of the tracks here, but it’s a slower pace that aims for a more sultry tone. They also bring in a slew of guest vocalists (a different artist for almost every track) including The Weeknd, Miguel, Lorde, and, once again, Sam Smith, to further justify this change of pace.

Unfortunately, the lower BPM material doesn’t make up for the deficit of hooks on Caracal, offering an album-listening experience that, despite the heavily lacquered polish, is sorely lacking in sonic signatures, borrowed or otherwise. Sure, you can point to tracks like “Holding On (feat. Gary Porter)” or “Hourglass (feat. Lion Babe)” as carrying the torch from Settle, but they wouldn’t have been real standouts there, either. In fact, at a certain point, individual tracks and vocalists on Caracal all start to sound kind of the same, to the point where a dose of nostalgic indulgence may actually have been a pleasant surprise. At best, Caracal is a perfectly listenable exercise from a band looking to dip their toes in new territory, but at worst it reads as Disclosure’s idea factory running dry a mere two years after saturating the market with their particular brand of vintage (Caracal now available at Target; includes retailer-exclusive tracks.

Perhaps it’s Disclosure’s position and popularity as deep house revivalists that makes Caracal’s (and, truth be told, much of Settle’s) mediocrity so disappointing. It’s a version of deep house with the edges shaved into childproof bumpers, designed for piping into shopping malls worldwide. In its nascent stages, house music was a far more localized experience. There’s a reason terms like Chicago House and Detroit Techno still hang around and carry specific signifiers. In contrast, Disclosure sounds like they could have come from anywhere. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but ironically it does make them difficult to latch onto.