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On Disclosure's Settle and Revisiting Criticism

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Last Donut of the Night
May 26 2021
13 min read
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  1. A friend and colleague recently half-joked, half-expressed-with-dread to me that Pitchfork's recently-introduced (and Spotify-powered) Reviews Explorer tool means that readers might be more likely to access the older reviews they'd written for the site. Of course, neither of us knew that Pitchfork would follow up this algorithmic unveiling with a feature offering a selective (and, at points, glaringly incomplete) history of their reviews section as a whole.
  2. I have no real opinion on the ideological nuts and bolts of a feature that seems to primarily exist as part of a larger package centered around the unveiling of the aforementioned Reviews Explorer—that is, beyond the fact that the real unsung heroes of the section are the interns and editorial fellows who, over the years, have worked tirelessly in fact-checking said reviews every day.
  3. Music writers, believe it or not, are often loose with factual accuracy (among other things), and the young people helping save these writers and the site from regular embarrassment have historically been paid far less than a livable wage to do so. They don't get enough credit, and they certainly don't get enough money.
  4. I also think there's real value in re-evaluating criticism for all parties involved—whether it be unearthing work from previous decades to highlight the bias and bigotry that's shit-smeared across so much patriarchal music writing history, or confronting your own critical shortcomings. I always think of Ann Powers' great NPR piece from 2012, "A Critic Atones," as the gold standard for re-evaluating one's critical faculties. If you're unable to take a hard look at your own judgment and admit that you were occasionally wrong (and we've all been wrong, so many times), how can you trust yourself to critique others' work?
  5. My professional writing career started in the summer of 2008, right before I turned 21, when I finally and successfully convinced my editor at SPIN's website (who I once had to explain to that David Bowie's "Berlin" trilogy and Lou Reed's Berlin were, in fact, separate artistic entities) that if I was going to continue putting in anywhere between 24 and 40 hours a week working for them, I should at least get paid $100/day to do so. I mention this to highlight that there's a lot of stuff I've written over the last 13 years, a decent amount of which (specifically, anything pre-2013) I don't particularly care for.
  6. Granted, writing is sometimes only as good as the editing behind it, and I'd be remiss not to mention that some of my past work that I don't look back on fondly was affected by what amounted to low-stakes editorial malpractice.
  7. Here's the actual worst thing an editor's ever done to my work: My job at SPIN's website consisted of a lot of news writing, and one of the editors loved Top Chef. So I did a news story about Foo Fighters' upcoming appearance on the show. Somewhere in the editing process, the editor in question added the following kicker, the worst part obviously bolded for emphasis: "Whatever his culinary chops, there are no plans for Grohl to take over one of the Top Chef judges’ seats for good, lest we be deprived of the ravishing Padma Lakshmi and adorable Gail Simmons."
  8. Gross! What a disgusting fucking thing to put in copy, especially copy that's not yours! Keep it in your pants for Christ's sake, and also if you're going to play the role of "Old guy masturbating at the back of the bus" at the workplace, don't assume that everyone around you with a dick is interested in doing the same. Any embarrassment I felt at seeing this get published was cancelled out by the fact that I knew no one would read it, because SPIN's website circa 2008-2009, quite frankly, fucking sucked.
  9. As a permalancer, I never signed an NDA, so I'm free to state that while I worked for SPIN's website the environment was rife with casual misogyny and overall bigotry. The staff was all-male and presumably straight, since they were dating and obsessing over the physical appearance of women almost exclusively; I'd been hired as an unpaid intern by a woman who was fired two weeks after I started. She was eventually replaced by a former People editor in his 50s who frequently drooled over the physical appearance of actor/musician Taylor Momsen (who had, no exaggeration, just turned 16), and once catcalled Au Revoir Simone in the middle of an in-office performance by yelling out, "You all look great!"
  10. Another editor took it upon himself to "out" St. Vincent as queer in a Song of the Day post, years before she herself publicly suggested she might identify as such. (The post was quickly taken down when another editor noticed the infraction, but it did briefly make it to publish.) In a heated meeting about why the website didn't report on Chris Brown's arrest for physical assault against Rihanna, that same editor said he didn't find the news itself remarkable (paraphrasing here) "Because [Brown's] a rap guy, and you expect that kind of stuff from them." When I was eventually laid off in June 2009, I unexpectedly burst out laughing when my boss solemnly delivered the news—sure, I was very worried about the future of my career a month after graduating college, but there was a sense of relief that I wouldn't have to pretend to like any of these guys any longer, too.
  11. Alright, I'm done with the castigating-others stuff (for today, at least, maybe, who knows). The larger point is that so many things age poorly, including your own work, and as much as that can be others' fault it certainly can be yours as well. I started thinking about all of this nearly a month ago, actually, when spinning through the at-points-excellent Magic Tape 100 compilation from Belgian DJ The Magician led me to revisiting British duo Disclosure's 2013 debut Settle—which I gave very high marks to over at Pitchfork when it was released.
  12. My official opinion on Disclosure post-Settle is that the music they've released under their own guise since has been at best mildly pleasant and outright boring at worst. Having emerged with such a perfect replication of UK dance music's recent past, they really did seem to find themselves with nowhere to go afterwards. Caracal had a few good songs but was mostly marked by the type of genre-pogo doodling expected from go-nowhere sophomore efforts; ENERGY was a similarly unsurprising return-to-form attempt that I barely remember despite it being less than a year old.
  13. I think Guy and Howard Lawrence are better songwriters/producers than they are artists-on-their-own, if that makes sense. I don't love Khalid's "Talk," but I can appreciate why it was something of a hit and you can certainly hear Disclosure's spotless approach in the production. The brothers Lawrence also happened to contribute to my favorite song from Chloe x Halle's Ungodly Hour (the title track, specifically). They'll be successful in this lane for years to come, I'm sure they're still killer DJs, but when it comes to what they were doing circa Settle the gas tank has long been dry.
  14. Settle still sounds excellent, though. As a pop album, the number of outright killer singles it features is simply mind-boggling; as a dance album (a subcategory ridden with mediocrity, especially when it comes to mainstream releases) it's briskly and expertly sequenced despite running a considerable length. "Latch" still delivers even though the rest of Sam Smith's career really hasn't, "Help Me Lose My Mind" is still an absolutely gorgeous album-closer, and I still think the lush house-pop of "Defeated No More" (featuring Ed McFarlane of perpetually underrated dance-rockers Friendly Fires) deserves more love. Yeah, the whole thing is essentially the Taco Bell version of 2-step/UKG, but let those who have never enjoyed Taco Bell at any point cast the first stone, too.
  15. When I accidentally went mega-viral on Twitter for my Random Access Memories opinion a few years ago, at one point I "showed my work" and posted a link to my best-of list from 2013 (which RAM was absent from) to prove that my dislike of the record wasn't a recent contrarian shift. Several people quickly noted Settle was at the top of my list, and I replied to a fellow critic at one point that the album had "aged terribly."
  16. I don't think the album itself aged all that bad, though—moreso that the context it was critically appraised within doesn't hold up after so many years. I certainly played no small role in the realm of critical appraisal here; my review of the album was accompanied by a 9.1 score that I'd submitted myself and the site subsequently stuck with.
  17. I re-read my own work all the time to get an idea of what I've done in the past that I've liked and disliked—stylistic tics to embrace, shit I say too often, over-used adjectives, etc. I've avoided re-reading my Settle review until recently though, possibly due to the level of contentiousness surrounding the album, Disclosure at large, and my own frequent critical embrace of commercial/mainstream dance music.
  18. I have very specific memories of writing the review itself. I went to the Pitchfork office on a Sunday afternoon, a deviation from my usual review-writing schedule of either writing until 3 a.m. before going to work the next day or waking up at 6 a.m. and going into the office three hours before the rest of the staff got there. (Until I became the site's first official Reviews Editor in 2014, it was more or less frowned upon if not expressly discouraged to write reviews or longform profiles during regular hours, especially since full-time staff members were still paid freelance rates for those pieces on top of the paltry salaries we were receiving. I don't need to mention the $22k starting salary again—except, whoops, looks like I just did.) I was nervous because it was a big review, to me! It took a few hours, I think I got there at 1 in the afternoon and was finished by 4 or so. It was my first (only, I think?) 9.0+ review, that meant something to me at the time, I wanted to do it right.
  19. I was reasonably proud of the review at the time, but I'm not exactly blown away at my own abilities upon revisiting. On the Pitchfork scale, I'd probably give the writing itself somewhere in the mid-high-6's—not bad, possibly something that you or your friends might enjoy, but nothing I can enthusiastically recommend that you consume. Here's a part I really don't like, though:
  20. "Ultimately though, complaining about young artists reviving sounds that they weren't around to experience the first time around is futile. We're a few years into an era where talented musicians are discovering influences new and old not through direct interaction with scenes but through their computers. And when the execution is this accomplished, it's hard to get too hung up on the source material."
  21. I was about a month shy from turning 26 when writing the review, and at the time I perceived a lot of the criticism that Disclosure were receiving from ultra-serious dance types as snobbish and egregiously high-minded. I was also in a party-centric mindset at the time, or at the least was possessing a proclivity to go out dancing until the early hours of the morning that would last for at least a few more years after that. Disclosure's music was fun! I also loved (and still love) all things UKG and figured that more of that music in the world was only a good thing. What was all the negativity about?
  22. You can do the math as to how old I am now, but if I'd written that review at this point I would've likely interrogated the notion of two white young men essentially co-opting Black art forms such as UKG and 2-step in a way that gained them greater commercial and critical visibility than most of the artists they were aping. It's so obvious of an issue to address that it's utterly absurd I didn't mention it once. (I can't even remember whether race was part of the discussion surrounding Settle. Keep in mind that this was an era of music writing in which an entire separate roundtable had to be commissioned in order to address the fact that no prominent female-identifying critics had been asked to review Kanye West's most sexually explicit album to date. Only eight years ago, folks!)
  23. I'm not actually sure I had any business writing the review to begin with! Pitchfork as a whole was the furthest thing from a diverse environment when it came to its contributors in 2013, certainly not even close to where it is now. (When the site's current Editor-in-Chief Puja Patel took over near the end of 2018, it marked the first time a non-white woman has occupied a senior editorial position at the publication, a fact that scans as completely shameful when assessing Pitchfork's past on any level.)
  24. Criticism is pretty much my bag. All I know is how to have opinions, and the fact that I've picked up any other attendant life skills along the way seems like an absolute miracle. I don't think it's an incorrect assessment, at this point, to note that my voice can be quite loud (figuratively and literally) and at times prominent amongst other music critics. I value the relative success I've had in my career thus far, but as I've watched non-white male colleagues experience professional issues and career setbacks that I've never even come close to being subjected to, I find it impossible to avoid addressing the fact that some of that success has come from me being a white man that other white men are frequently comfortable with being around and giving work to.

This isn't imposter syndrome or whatever—it's just how it is, and revisiting a fair amount of criticism I've written throughout my career has also meant frequently asking myself why it was my voice out there instead of someone else's. I suppose this is where I should do a kicker about being hopeful for the future or urging supposed white industry colleagues to push things even further in terms of abolishing the racist and patriarchal machinations of the media at large, but that would amount to little more than faux-prescriptive offerings from yet another white man, and lord knows we don't need any more of that either.

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