Photo: Ben Tricklebank

How to Dress Well: Care

How to Dress Well's first album since 2012's Total Loss emerges as a sign of optimism in our all-too turbulent times.
How to Dress Well

Tom Krell writes music with the mindset of someone who leaves their diary open to a page they want you to read. How to Dress Well, Krell’s psychic safety valve for his musical dreamscapes, played like a Ready for the World and ’90s neo-soul homage in its infancy. In 2009, the then 25-year-old Krell shared his mission statement anonymously in three otherworldly EPs on his blog. His lo-fi lyrical poem “Ready for the World” flirted with “Love You Down’s” melody before manifesting itself into his own composition, murky and poignant without the pretention of a tribute.

Recognizing How to Dress Well’s unique interpretation of contemporary R&B, many flocked to Krell’s blog to listen to his next affectation. Popularity in bloom, Krell wrote his first full-length album, Love Remains, with hints of and nods toward Jodeci and Keith Sweat’s quiet storm tracks. Krell understood the internal nature of early-to-mid ’90s R&B. “Suicide Dream 2” toyed with spooky atmospherics, but the underlying melodies flooded the dreamscapes painted with slow, passionate strokes. Ghostly, his melodies resembled the tender nature of the finest slow jams. Likewise, the unevenly hued ambience equaled Grouper’s darkened textures. The difference between Krell and Liz Harris’ clouded textures was the soul-tinged vocals haunting throughout Love Remains.

2012’s Total Loss diverted slightly from Love Remains. Production shifted from lo-fi to quality mastered tracks, although Krell kept the techniques he developed in How to Dress Well’s nascent stages. Loops and samples filled “Say My Name or Say Whatever”, and the group’s live performances fulfilled the sonic requirements to match the quality of the recordings. On the other hand, “What Is This Heart” became his artistic high-water mark, combining Krell’s affinity for perverting loops and melodies with sophisticated song writing.

Two years and a PhD in Philosophy from DePaul later, Care creeps up like a cat walking on a bed of cotton balls in a topsy-turvy moment when the whole world has gone mad. “Can’t You Tell” embraces familiar R&B lyrical tropes; yet, it surges forward with a tempo faster than any previous How To Dress Well release. Ebullient, the vocal production swells and layers itself over and over on top of the mid-tempo beat that one could easily hear Janet Jackson or Frank Ocean’s flair on a mixtape. Wish fulfillment, of course, but Krell sells the “Can’t You Tell” hook as well as Ocean or The Weeknd.

Care comes at a time when a forceful contrast is needed amidst the daily reminders of human beings committing horrible atrocities: police shootings, turbulent election cycle, and Aleppo. Krell could have written pessimistic commentaries concerning his surroundings, especially one close to his own heart, the Orlando nightclub massacre — the largest mass shooting in American history. Instead, Krell goes high when the world goes low. “What’s Up” showcases Krell’s capacity to sing in tight spaces, holding fast to the rhythms, spitting triplet melodies, unlike his previous musical offerings. “They’ll Take Everything” looks at the abyss with hope. His falsetto under control, he warns “When it is all said and done / They’ll take everything you have”, but without the cynicism that reflects our time. Like a reassuring hand grasping onto a despondent soul’s shoulder, Krell is here to remind us that even after losing everything, the irony is that they have not taken your spirit.

Steering away from Blakean textures, “Time Was Meant to Say” exhibits how far Krell has come as a songwriter. The rhythm bounces between the slowcore ambience he perfected and unfamiliar up-tempo territories that flashes like lightening, only to return to the familiar future beat downtempos bearing Krell’s fingerprints.

If How to Dress Well returned with Love Remains 2.0, ride-or-die fans would grow suspicious of his artistic stagnancy. Each song pushes against its own history, wrestling with the textured parts it once fully embraced, and ultimately letting the tattered remains go. Replacing the tattered remains are Krell’s ambitions to be something more than an artist embraced by the indie community. Hooks abound, he aspires to hear himself on the same radio stations next to the same artists he respects and reveres. How to Dress Well is ready for the world, and Care steps forward and into the space occupied by mainstream pop artists.

RATING 8 / 10