, June 7th, 2013 06:17
Much of the commentary surrounding Disclosure has suggested that they are this generation's "crossover" dance act, squeezing the melting pot of the past half decade's dance trends - predominantly bass music and house - into a sleek, chart-friendly package, and turning out catchy, vocal-led pop music that stands in direct opposition to the abhorrent, genetically spliced pop/dance being peddled by the likes of David Guetta, Avicii, and Will.i.am. In comparison, Guy and Howard Lawrence are the acceptable, UK born faces of modern commercial dance/pop music, primed to show these supposedly odious villains just how chart music should be done. Comparing tracks like their remix of Jessie Ware's 'Running' - an infectious scalpel job that outdid Marc Kinchen at his own game while dispensing with tired future garage clichés - and the similarly radio friendly 'Boiling' and 'What's In Your Head' from last year with anything by the aforementioned acts, and it's easy to see how this conclusion was reached. Their style is light, unabrasive, and generally free of the bloated trappings of US or Euro-centric EDM.
However, as the pair themselves suggest, they're not meant to be underground dance artists. Speaking to Dummy recently, Howard Lawrence said that "we've always written pop songs", and it's on these terms that it seems necessary to approach their debut album, Settle. After a short intro of billowing chords, clacky beats and hushed vocals that recall Crooks & Lovers-era Mount Kimbie - presumably a symbolic jettisoning of the earliest iteration of their sound - the duo launch into the punchy 4/4 of 'When A Fire Starts To Burn', where a charismatic preacher-style vocal is laid down over a sparse pairing of bassline and organ stabs. It sets the scene for an album peppered with similarly pulse racing moments. Standout track 'You & Me' builds on the 'Running' formula to great effect, thanks to its lively two-step, which combined with Eliza Doolittle's vocal has all the qualities of a great Katy B track. Downtempo closer 'Help Me Lose My Mind' has a surprisingly 80s feel, thanks to its spacious production and pleasingly atmospheric vocal from London Grammar.
Although much has been made of Disclosure's UK garage influences, their euphoric production style has more in common with the noughties diaspora of post electro-house artists like Cut Copy or Aeroplane, ratcheting up the euphoric tension with a vivid stew of colourful elements gently simmered until they spill over the sides at carefully designed moments. 'Latch' is the first such example, with a soulful vocal from Sam Smith that taps into the irresistible qualities of 90s chart soul like Boyz II Men and Seal, elevated by the Lawrence brothers' effervescent backdrops. There's no denying that when these moments work, they provide something of a seratonin overload. Recent single 'White Noise' balances its fairly juvenile melody and vocal contribution from Aluna Francis (of AlunaGeorge) with bombastic moments of pitched chord bliss that feel like you're superglued into an MDMA coated marshmallow, while 'January' sees Jamie Woon's vocals soaring into the stratosphere tied to a bunch of helium balloons. One thing is certainly not in dispute: Disclosure can write the kind of hook that sticks in your brain like freshly chewed gum.
As effective as these moments are, however, they feel naggingly contrived. In each of these poppier tracks it's the same formula: build up a beat, lay down a catchy (but basic) melody, bring in the vocal, slap a rubbery bassline down, slather some pads over the whole thing, let it soar, drop the bassline, repeat. There's no denying it works, but you begin to wonder if they have any other tools at their disposal. Formulas are all well and good, and pop has its fair share of them, but Disclosure's shows itself to be tired and lacking in imagination over 14 tracks.
This lack of variation is obvious in other ways. Although the vocal contributions are all accomplished, there's little to distinguish them from the majority of the anonymous vocalists currently clogging up the British charts. Texturally the duo's production is ironed out and featureless: vaguely authentic string pads pop up to give everything an air of false 90s house authenticity, the same rubbery basslines repeat themselves, and the stiff rhythms rarely ever stray outside of the functionally metronomic. This reuse of such a similar palette ad infinitum is entirely expected of a dance act, but not in the context of a pop album. This isn't helped by the collection of straight up club tracks surrounding the pop moments, which only succeed in disrupting the album's flow. The rolling grooves of 'Stimulation' and 'Grab Her!' sound like the kind of chart dance fodder that should be soundtracking a contestant's 'Best Bits' on Big Brother circa 2003.
Herein lies the problem with Settle. Ultimately Disclosure's music is the aural equivalent of a McDonalds milkshake: smooth, thick, creamy, and often delicious, but no matter which way you flavour it, it's still comprised of the same bland milky base. For every track that sticks in your brain, there's another you struggle to remember when you're not listening to it ('Defeated No More', 'F For You', even the Jessie Ware contribution 'Confess To Me'). Perhaps the most damning example of their own cannibalistic homogenity is 'Voices', which just sounds like a lazy and cynical redux of their breakthrough 'Running' remix.
If we're to see Settle as a pop album, then it fails by nature of its own confusion, placing too many functional dance tracks amongst its poppier moments. If we're to see it as a successful crossover dance album then we need to look at it alongside the likes of Fatboy Slim's You've Come A Long Way Baby, The Chemical Brothers' Surrender, Basement Jaxx's Rooty or Daft Punk's Discovery - and frankly, Settle isn't anywhere near being as interesting, nuanced, or above all varied as any of those. The only thing Settle succeeds at is repurposing generic late 90s funky house into a sound that people seem to have been brainwashed into thinking is new and exciting. In this sense, Disclosure have just pulled exactly the same trick Guetta did on the US, by re-appropriating terrible Eurohouse a decade after its demise.
"I'd say to him, would you rather be in your car and listen to Nicki Minaj, David Guetta and Avicii or 'White Noise'?", says Guy Lawrence in that same interview with Dummy, referring to writer Clive Martin, who recently raised questions about the duo in a recent Vice article. It's a statement reminiscent of the plot of a classic South Park episode parodying the US election of 2004, in which the pupils of the town's elementary school are forced to decide between a giant douche and a turd sandwich as their new mascot. The title of this album says it all - somewhere down the line something went badly wrong, and we were all forced to settle for the least bad of two options. That Disclosure are currently being held up on a pedestal only serves to demonstrate the terminal decline of a pop industry forced to put all their efforts into the most risk-averse musical investment they can find.