Has there ever been a great single-artist UK garage album? Garage, the skittery dance subgenre that crossed over in Britain around the turn of the millennium, was mostly a singles-driven genre. Built on shiny R&B hooks and tricky, propulsive drum programming, it cranked out anthem after anthem between 1999 and 2001, before it gradually morphed into grime and dubstep, and even its highest-profile practitioners were anonymous studio-rat types who could probably show up to their own video shoots and go unrecognized. They rarely stuck around long enough to record albums, and when they did, those albums usually translated to singles-plus-filler. M.J. Cole’s Sincere had some serious jams and got nominated for a Mercury Music Prize, but its deep cuts sounded, at least to my ears, like attempts at smooth jazz. Basement Jaxx’s 1999 debut Remedy is a very good album, but the group’s anarchic sensibilities, though initially rooted in UK garage, were already exploding with way too many sounds and ideas to fit into the genre, and not all those ideas were fully realized. Artful Dodger’s It’s All About The Stragglers was pretty much a singles compilation, one that showed up a year late. So it’s entirely possible that the first great UK garage album is one made more than a decade after the genre’s moment ended, by two pasty brothers from Surrey who were babies when UK garage was having its peak moment. That’s amazing.
Maybe it’s a bit reductive to call Settle, the ridiculously great debut from the British duo Disclosure, a garage album. After all, the LP has a bit of a pan-genre sweep to it. A handful of tracks are straight-up four-on-the-floor house, and a few others are the sort of diffuse, bottom-heavy bass music that the Lawrence brothers were making when they first showed up a couple of years ago. And this isn’t an album of DJ-bin tracks; most of these are full-on songs, with guest vocalists of some repute, structured with verses and choruses and memorable riffs. A few of the singles have already been top-10 hits in the group’s homeland, so this isn’t just pop music in a theoretical sense; Disclosure are having their crossover moment right now. With its roster of guests — Jessie Ware, Jamie Woon, AlunaGeorge — and its bittersweet emotional force, the album also owes something to the poised, atmospheric post-club music we’ve been hearing from England in the wake of the xx. But the spirit of UK garage — the frisky rhythmic push-pull, the slinky apple-martini hooks, the silk-shirted sense of adventure — reverberates all through Settle.
Garage came along when the head-blown darkness of jungle was gradually transforming itself into prog — when Goldie was recording hour-long songs with orchestral accompaniment — and gave London’s always-fruitful club and pirate radio culture a shot of energy. It brought glamor and danger and melody and femininity and songcraft and aspiration to the forefront. And now the Disclosure kids are doing something similar in a climate dominated by monolithic headrush pop-trance and gonad-punch dubstep. With Random Access Memories, Daft Punk pointed one way out of that hole, using outrageously expensive studio geniuses and late-’70s soft-pop swag to make their point. But in doing so, they more or less left dance music behind completely. With Settle, Disclosure dig their own hole, and they do it with nothing but potential club anthems.
In certain ways, Settle works as a pretty amazing work of curation, of picking the exact right influences and references. The guest vocalists here are all impeccably chosen and put into circumstances that work for them — AlunaGeorge doing poised but euphoric soul, Jamie Woon letting his falsetto drift inward, Friendly Fires frontman Ed Macfarlane getting languorous and breezy, Jessie Ware awakening the inner club-queen belter that was silent on her own amazing debut album last year. Certain references here, like the Kelis and Dilla samples on successive tracks, work as coded-signal clarion calls to music dorks of a particular age — an age way older than the Lawrence brothers — that mark the album’s makers as dorks just like us. It’s appreciated. The Lawrence brothers even put their baby pictures on the cover, just like Nas on Illmatic.
But listening to Settle isn’t a game of spot-the-reference. It’s a euphoric, instinctive experience, one that works amazingly well on its own merits. These kids know what they fuck they’re doing. The riff on “White Noise” — that fluttering, bouncing keyboard thing — is more gripping and propulsive and immediate than any metal riff I’ve heard this year, and it’s been a great year for metal. And there are more where those came from: The ascending/descending burble on “Grab Her!,” the honking wobble on “Confess To Me,” the high-stepping bassline on “F For You.” “F For You” also has one of the most confidently slippery vocal performances on the whole album, and it doesn’t come from a big-name guest. It comes from Howard, the younger of the two Lawrence brothers, who is still a fucking teenager and who’s already ready to start throwing his own guest-vocals on other producers’ anthems. And then there’s “Stimulation.” Regarding “Stimulation”: Oh my fucking god, what a monster of a track! It’s a whirling rush of chopped-up vocal echoes and sandworm basslines and ratcheting-up instanity, all welded to an absolutely unforgiving house drum pattern, and it’s such a blast of energy that I can’t get through a day lately unless I blast it at least seven times. Right now, that song is making my life.
Of course, a banger like “Stimulation” is never enough to make an album, and dance LPs with multiple guest vocalists don’t exactly have a noble history. But the album flows together as one cohesive whole, moving from peak to valley without losing a step. And Disclosure don’t even take the easy way out — the old Chemical Brothers trick of putting the pounding anthems at the front of the album and moving gradually toward head-blown psychedelia. Instead, they assuredly mix moods and ideas and feelings. The transitions between tracks are seamless and gorgeous, but that impulse for smooth transitions somehow never pins the album down in one place for even a moment. And when it finally slides from the gospel-inflected thuds of “Confess To Me” into the quietly devastating closing track “Help Me Lose My Mind,” which sounds like Everything But The Girl’s Tracey Thorn softly crying joy-tears in a Scandinavian hotel suite in 1998, the quiet, emotive moment feels both earned and inevitable. It’s a dazzling end to the best full-length album of dance music that I’ve heard in years. This is a straight-up instant classic, and your summer is going to get a whole lot better if you let it into your life.
Other albums of note out this week:
• The long-awaited Queens Of The Stone Age all-star bongwater-rock return …Like Clockwork.
• Eleanor Friedberger’s forthright, pastoral solo joint Personal Record.
• Camera Obscura’s expansively twee Desire Lines.
• Jon Hopkins’s blissful, Amrit-beloved Immunity.
• Stephin Merritt’s Future Bible Heroes project’s twinkling comeback Partygoing.
• Rogue Wave’s bright, grand indie-popper Nightingale Floors.
• Western Lows’ autumnal debut Glacial.
• The soundtrack to the improbably Stephen King/John Mellencamp/T-Bone Burnett musical Ghost Brothers Of Darkland County.
• Ben Folds Five’s Live EP.