ENERGY: Disclosure’s unlikely affinity for West Africa takes centre stage

The two brothers, known synonymously as Disclosure, have a success story that seems fantastical. Their debut album Settle (2013) almost immediately established their status as a driving force in UK house music.

They didn’t need to climb ranks, they jumped into the upper echelon of critically acclaimed and huge mainstream success, gaining membership to an exclusive club that is rarely accessed by first efforts. The first seven songs on their album Settle are a near-flawless opening run, and, despite being seven years old, it has barely aged, rather it has now become a nostalgic relic of a time that once was. 

They were born and bred in Surrey, so their fondness for West African musicians throughout this album made for an unexpected listen. Settle is more homely than their latest album (evidenced by the title) and notably, they focused on new British talent. In 2013, the artists sounded comfortable, aided by their talented friends from home giving them a hook or a verse as a favour. It was a gateway to national popularity for all parties involved, landing Sam Smith their first big break with Latch, AlunaGeorge with an NME award and a number 2 hit, and Eliza Doolittle (pre-ELIZA) with a Top 10 single.

Unfortunately, this was both a blessing and a curse for the duo, as every release after Settle has always been (somewhat unfairly) judged in comparison. They already know how to reach the gold standard, so anything less than this is automatically viewed as subpar. If their opening track is not as good as ‘When a Fire Starts to Burn’ they have already let their audience down.

And then came ‘ENERGY

The first track on ENERGY (2020) is the Kelis-featured ‘Watch Your Step’. This is the song I was most excited for (as new Kelis is like gold dust), but it is nowhere near as interesting as ‘When a Fire’ by any measure . Luckily, this underwhelming opener is not an omen for the rest of the album. Disclosure are exceedingly well-travelled on ENERGY as they make their way through unfamiliar places; visiting Mali, Cameroon and Niger, as well as Chicago (twice!) and Compton. Its heavy use of dialects and traditional West African instrumentals are its saving grace; by transgressing countries and crossing musical boundaries, they construct a whirlpool of genres that are impossible to individually discern. 

It is through the Malian pride of ‘Douha’ and Cameroonian band sampled, ‘Tondo’ that Disclosure’s production sounds best. The unconditional love for Mali that Fatoumata Diawara expresses on ‘Douha’ is clear, but on many songs where dialect features heavily, the sentences are often chopped into incoherency. By making meaning redundant, Disclosure makes two things very clear:

1) They don’t really know what’s being said. 

2) And they don’t really care.

It is a questionable premise: two middle-class white men making an album heavily inspired by West Africa, but stripping it of its cultural and historical references. This is commonplace of club music, as oftentimes it ascribes to the disposing of content, as long as the feeling is maintained. Disclosure’s meticulous attention to tonality and voice is at its peak here, and makes for excellent club music, as you can just throw sentiment away. 

‘My High’, for instance, has the vibrancy that is expected of the album’s title. Featured by Slowthai and Aminé, whose music exists on the opposite ends of rap, find an amusing common ground on this track. Slowthai is his usual sporadic and amoral self, his verse impatiently racing into the song without a moment to spare. Aminé on the other hand is the deliverance from pure chaos. As a steadying force, he is as smooth and confident as you’d expect him to be. The charm of ‘My High’ is so blatantly tangible, it is surprising it doesn’t have more streams. 

The ‘Thinking ‘Bout You’ interlude is another highlight, relying on a soul sample reminiscent of 90’s hip-hop. It is buoyant and dreamy, sounding more like a 9th Wonder deep cut than a Disclosure song. Despite its beauty, it does sound odd on ENERGY, it is a misplaced track they liked so much that they just threw it in anyway. 

A lack of consistency

This is the most frustrating aspect of the album, as it lacks a clear direction. Its pace is so erratic, it sounds more like a collection of songs than a full-fledged album. The layering of the two very popular Khalid songs on top of each other, the platinum-selling ‘Know Your Worth’ and the hugely successful ‘Talk’, seems random.

It is more boastful than anything else as if they are signposting commercial successes unrelated to the album. ‘Know Your Worth’ is a shallow, archetypical pop song and whilst ‘Talk’ sees Khalid stretch himself a little bit more, it is still blandly taciturn (despite what the title suggests). This victory lap seems more like a ploy to rack up streams, and it is understandable, but it is at the cost of the album’s cohesiveness. 

Despite their missteps, Disclosure’s latest effort is a success in highlighting that they can still divert house music past convention. Disclosure opts to roam territories unknown to them, and to amalgamate genres without compromising their sound; a very difficult task they manage to pull off. By never sounding secondary to their vocalists, the magnitude of the Disclosure sound is still domineering, and when they really want to, they can surprise us just as much as they did in 2013.

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