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How to Dress Well’s new album is a success for pop music


Pure pop music has undergone a bit of a resurgence in mainstream music coverage and bubbling-under blogs over the past couple years.

A genre that was formerly dismissed as shallow or trite, reflecting the consistently mediocre music placed on Top 40 radio stations, is now seen as moving, powerful, or even transcendent. Pop music is now respected.

Tom Krell, aka How to Dress Well, knows this as well as anyone. At the beginning of his career, with albums like Love Remains and Total Loss, Krell made spacious, cavernous alternative R&B with an electronic twist. Still, in tracks like “& It Was U,” that pop sensibility was apparent.

Krell followed up those albums with his most prominent record to date in What Is This Heart.

Here, the dusty, lo-fi recordings of his previous efforts were replaced with beautiful arrangements, both acoustic and electronic.

From the slow build of “Words I Don’t Remember” to the strong reassurance of “Precious Love,” What Is This Heart was a classic R&B album – and it was my favorite album overall of 2014.

Krell has been a ridiculously consistent artist throughout the years, so naturally I couldn’t wait to see what he had in store as a follow-up.

And while this new album, Care, is a major stylistic departure from his previous projects, it’s a natural progression into that uplifting pure pop that he has always respected.

The first thing that most new listeners will notice about How to Dress Well is Krell’s voice.

It’s an instantly recognizable Timberlake inflected counter-tenor that makes it impossible to tell if that’s his real voice or an elegant falsetto. Krell lacks the conviction of a pop star like Timberlake, and that actually works in his favor; when he does try to sing forcefully, it feels like an accomplishment from an artist that was afraid to let his voice shine.

He also sings and writes with intense earnestness and a complete lack of pretension or cynicism.

The album’s opener, “Can’t You Tell,” has been described as a “consent anthem,” and despite the corny lyrics (“Want to throw you down and take you right there / but I want it when you want it”) I think the song accomplishes just that.

Earnest, passionate love is the recurring theme of Care. Krell has always dealt with intimacy deftly and intensely on previous projects. But here, he has a real knack for evocative lyrics that make the listener feel like they’re eavesdropping, like on “What’s Up” (“I wanna know your mouth”) or “Anxious” (“Why am I so pathetic?”).

But in pop music, aesthetic and feeling trump all. In that sense, Care is a resounding success.

The twinkly piano pop of “Lost Youth / Lost You” is inspiring, and the smooth guitar and cute synth melody of “What’s Up” is uplifting. Krell wears his influences on his sleeve, from the Young Thug-inspired vocals on the pre-chorus of “What’s Up” to the bare Aaliyah-style balladry of “Untitled”.

My favorite song on Care is “Anxious,” a Saturday morning song if I’ve ever heard one. The driving string pulses are truly stunning, and combining that with Nile Rodgers-style guitar and subtle slap bass makes this track an 80s pop dream. It doesn’t even matter that the lyrics are somewhat despondent when the music sounds this good.

I can see why some people will be put off by this album, especially after Krell’s previous efforts.

The lyrics are frequently melodramatic and rarely have much depth. After the experimentation of his early albums, people might see Care as simply being a safe pop album.

I’d disagree. Today’s music tastemakers are brutal. It’s easy to make an album where you don’t take anything seriously. Sometimes, the gutsiest thing an artist can do is simply care.

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