One of the more counterintuitive rules of pop music says that the least original artists often end up being the most imitated ones. That’s how Elvis can be simultaneously remembered as the person who made America rock and the guy who stole from the true creators of rock; it’s how there are so many Google results for the phrase “Oasis knockoff.”
Two bands that just released sophomore albums exemplify the idea that nostalgia and creative theft can be forward-thinking. When they arrived in the popular consciousness in 2013, Disclosure and CHRVCHES were widely and plausibly called “derivative”; today, they’re widely and plausibly called “influential.” What happens to a band when their use of old styles helps repopularize those styles?
The two British brothers of Disclosure duplicate the sounds of ’80s and ’90s Chicago house music and U.K. garage—skittering high-hats, melodic synth burbles, soul vocals. On their 2013 debut Settle, they placed those elements into tightly scripted pop-song structures with hooks that were as sticky as anything on the radio, featuring a handful of young vocalists who seemed on the verge of breaking through into stardom themselves. Though the icy, controlled template contrasted with the shuddering, bombastic dubstep sounds ruling mainstream and dance pop at the time, the creators didn’t really claim to be innovators: One of the brothers, Howard Lawrence, bragged to The Guardian that he could drop songs of theirs into a DJ set and “no one could name what decade they’re from.”
The album ended up selling well, with their Sam Smith collaboration “Latch” making a strong play for Song of the Summer 2014. Soon, a lot of bands started sounding like Disclosure sounding like classic electronica. As Pitchfork’s Meaghan Garvey recently summarized, Settle “opened the doors for pop-adjacent neo-house acts like Duke Dumont, Years & Years, and Rudimental (not to mention for Sam Smith). ‘That sound is everywhere now,’ [Disclosure member] Guy [Howard], now 24, admitted in an L.A. Times profile this summer. ‘The same old bass lines, the same old samples. We’re a bit bored by it.’”
Which is not to say that Disclosure has left that sound behind. Caracal, the duo’s new album, feels like an acknowledgement of their influence, a show of power from two guys whose taste and talent landed them at the center of popular music. A number of guest spots go to huge names like The Weeknd and Lorde; it’s not unlike how Empire returned for Season Two with a host of superstar cameos that the show couldn’t have landed before it blew up. And while the band still uses the same sonic textures as before, metallic and cold, they’ve also subbed in slower grooves—backbeats derived from R&B rather than techno, the very same tempos that those huge guest stars already sing over on their own material.
As a result, Disclosure’s sacrificed energy while still sounding derivative. Part of the success of “Latch” came from how the sped-up whirring and clicking of the arrangement made Smith’s wailing almost feel inhuman, like that of a malfunctioning machine—the appeal was intensity, not, as is often the case with Smith, melodrama. But here, even when they do crank up the BPMs, as on “Echoes” or “Jaded,” it’s like a yet-more-tasteful refinement of the already-tasteful sonic mix from their debut. While the results aren’t offensive, they do give the impression of a group that feels more comfortable than they should. There’s no sense of rediscovery, of giddy dress-up, that helped make Settle so striking.
CHVRCHES’s debut, The Bones of What You Believe, came out a few months after Disclosure’s did in 2013. Electro-pop had already been an indie-rock staple for years, but the Scottish trio distilled it with study melodies, bright blocks of sound, and Lauren Mayberry’s clean, sharp voice. Each song was essentially a more emotionally serious version of Men Without Hats’s 1982 hit “Safety Dance” or one of its contemporaries. Fittingly, CHVRCHES opened up for Depeche Mode on a few dates; Mayberry then wrote an fannish blog post about the tour that also, inadvertently, nailed why her group’s take on an old sound was gaining so much traction: “In today’s musical climate of disposable pop with little to say versus deliberately obscure electro where all hints of a topline are buried beneath layers of effects and fear of seeming mainstream, Depeche Mode still stand alone, unafraid to foreground melody and imbue music with emotion in a way few other songwriters can.”
Two years later, it’s common for write-ups of Taylor Swift’s new shtick, or Carly Rae Jepsen’s latest songs, or any number of other ’80s synthpop-influenced popular tunes, to mention a resemblance to CHVRCHES. Like with Disclosure’s second album, the band’s sophomore effort, Every Open Eye, doesn’t ditch the sound that made them famous. But unlike with Disclosure, you get little sense that CHVRCHES feels secure in the fact that their favorite genre is newly trendy. From the nearly atonal blasts that open the album to the immediately earwormy chorus of “Bury It,” it feels like the band’s working very hard to keep people’s attention.
Sometimes, the results of this hard work can be faintly embarrassing; one track, “Make Them Gold,” is so sugary and wannabe-inspirational that it feels desperate. But other songs lace their sumptuous melodies with just enough grit and ambivalence to create a powerful sense of tension/release. When singing along with the spiky, multi-segmented chorus of “Leave a Trace,” for example, it doesn’t matter that the band’s copying has been widely copied; no one’s doing this sound quite as well as them.
And in a super-savvy move, the highlight of the album is one that overtly nods at the past while sounding like the future; the TV comparison here might be to Sam Esmail using a cover of Fight Club’s signature Pixies song during a crucial moment of Mr. Robot. The CHVRCHES track at issue is “Clearest Blue,” a thrilling delivery system for ever-escalating momentum: New Order-y synth drones, the kind of rhythmic loops that recall gears turning. After two minutes of increasing enthusiasm, the song explodes into a riot of sounds that unmistakably references the hook of “Just Can’t Get Enough” by the one and only Depeche Mode. Giving credit where it’s due has rarely sounded so joyful.