'Time Was Meant to Stay' - a review of both How to Dress Well's new album and live show

It’s okay to be a “sad” person; it’s okay to struggle with a debilitating depression or crippling anxiety. And in those states, it becomes very, very easy to let it take over your life.

If there’s a moral, or some kind of take away from the new How to Dress Well record, aptly titled Care, it’s that while it is okay to grapple with the feelings that come from being aware of the human condition, one has to remember what it’s like to feel something else instead—what it’s like to feel good, or happy, or even to want to have fun (if you can even remember what that’s like.)

Let’s back up for just a moment here and talk about the progression of How to Dress Well over the course of the last six years. It’s something that I’ve probably mentioned every time I’ve written about the project, but it’s something that cannot be overlooked.

For the most part, How to Dress Well is the work of one guy—Tom Krell, who started anonymously uploading music online in 2009. It was shadowy and murky. It was “lo-fi R&B”—drenched in reverb and cavernous noise. His self-released EPs started gaining him attention, and in 2010, Krell formally released a collection of material from those EPs entitled Love Remains.

You could always hear the pop music leanings in his music—it was in there, somewhere, lurking under all those lo-fi aesthetics. I read it described once as what it would be like for a younger brother hearing his older sister’s stereo playing Top 40 radio in the early 90s—muffled and coming through the wall, or through the floor.

Krell started to strip away the reverb, and began bringing his voice higher into the mix, and bringing himself out into the forefront as a performer with 2012’s Total Loss—a meditation on the death of his best friend.

As an artist, with each How to Dress Well album, Krell continues to outdo himself. Two years ago, on “What is This Heart?,I summed up the record by saying he was making “good pop music for adults.” He again was still evolving as an artist, relying less on the shadowy murk of his earlier efforts, and pushing the boundaries of what “pop” music is. In a recent interview with Vogue, w/r/t Care, he said “ I made a record that’s actually an alternative pop record to populist pop, but is still nevertheless just pop. I want to make music that’s formally pop, but sonically extremely adventurous and then does things lyrically that just would fucking make every major label A&R cringe.”

Putting it mildly, Care is a huge, ambitious pop statement—by enlisting a bevy of producers, Krell and his team have created a texturally dense record that manages to be thought provoking and fun while never sacrificing its pop sensibilities and accessibility to listeners.

As a lyricist, Krell lays it all on the line on Care—while his lyrics were always very personal, it is here that he is most direct. Here, he’s completely self-aware and made by these times, for these times.

On “Salt Song,” he uses dream logic to talk to his younger self; on “Anxious,” he sings about having a nightmare regarding his Twitter mentions; on the return to his dark, claustrophobic sounds in “The Ruins,” he states if you’re going to have a breakdown, to do it all online. On the breathtaking “They’ll Take Everything You Have,” he shouts out the current year—but then adds “we fell off the globe”—only adding to the sense of immediacy and urgency of this collection of songs.

Change is hard,” Krell sang as the opening line to the album’s first single, “Lost You/Lost Youth.” And yes, change is hard—the change in Krell’s sound (i.e. the complete embrace of a pop sound) as well as the absolute earnestness of his lyrics may be difficult for some who preferred he remain in the shadows, drowning in reverb.

And yes, while a change in sound or a shift in style may be difficult to manage for some artists, and have listeners waxing nostalgic for the glory days of their earlier material, this growth has been gradual over the course of Krell’s four full-length efforts, and Care is the next logical step forward for him sonically.

The album itself is structured to work well as a whole, and is sequenced to culminate into something much larger than itself. Yes, of course there are songs that are much more successfully executed than others, and there are songs that are more fun to listen to than others, but to get the whole picture of Care, it’s best to start from the beginning because the album itself, as an entity, doesn’t let up until the somber piano key tinkles of the untitled unlisted track at the end fade out into the ether.

Care begins with a near flawless five-track run, leading from Krell’s “sex positive consent anthem” “Can’t You Tell,” down into the descent of the noisy “The Ruins.” He picks things back up with “Burning Up,” before heading into what I deem the “feel good” section of the record—the Postal Service-vibes on the frenetic, energetic “I Was Terrible,” and the carefree double shot of “Anxious” and “Time Was Meant to Stay.”

I often refer to Krell’s music as How to Dress Well as a triumph of the human spirit. Total Loss was a cathartic experience, and it came along at a time in my life when I needed it the most. He chooses to conclude Care similarly to how “What is This Heart?” ended—and that is in a life-affirming, bombastic, and powerful way.

“If you ever need care, then just let me know,” he sings on “Made a Lifetime,” the pensive and rhythmically driving track that makes way for “They’ll Take Everything You Have,” a closing track to end closing tracks, where Krell piles on the layers of sound to bring everything crashing down around you.

The aptly “Untitled” unlisted track arrives after that—and in the days of mp3s and digital albums, are hidden tracks even a surprise anymore? “Help a child understand its sadness. This is a song I thought I should sing,” Krell declares in a song that serves as a bit of an afterward to the eleven that preceded it.

Not so much a ‘concept album,’ but teetering into something that I would call a ‘song cycle,’ the idea of “care” resonates throughout. Care is a hopeful record and even in its darkest corners, it is brimming with light and positivity. Is it a perfect record? No—it has its flaws, like any record does, but as a whole, it is an impressive undertaking, both for Krell as an artist and performer, as well as what the idea of “pop” music is capable of.

Krell’s tour in support of Care began with a show in his adopted hometown of Chicago on the day of its release, then making the trek up to Minneapolis on Saturday, Sept. 24th with a return to the 7th Street Entry.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Krell’s live show twice—once in December, 2012 (at The Entry) with his tour in support of Total Loss. He returned in March of 2013, playing at the Triple Rock Social Club, on a co-headlining jaunt with Sky Ferreira.

I had intended on seeing his tour in 2014 in promotion of “What is This Heart?,but, long story short, an anxiety attack the day of the show prevented me from going.

In seeing How to Dress Well twice prior to his recent performance at The Entry, it is interesting to see how his live show has changed and grown along with his music—for starters, the visualizations that use to accompany each song are gone now, and most noticeably, Krell is flanked by an actual band on stage.

In previous performances, he was joined by one or two additional players assisting with various laptop usage, sample triggering, keyboards, or live violin. To translate the sound of Care to the stage, Krell has enlisted a drummer, and two multi- instrumentalists, both of whom also happened to be in the band opening up for him on this fall tour, Ex Reyes.

Krell himself still stands front and center, frenetically writhing between two microphones—one effected heavily by cavernous reverb, the other now boasting the addition of a Helicon Voicelive processor to generate additional effects on his vocals.

With four albums to his name, the band has more of a canon to choose from for its live sets. With the Minneapolis show, Krell relied heavily on new material from Care, playing eight of the album’s twelve songs, with the addition of his all-time set closer “Set it Right” from Total Loss, along with a revitalized version of “Suicide Dream 1.”

“& It Was U” and “Repeat Pleasure” were the other two “oldies” to be featured, along with an acapella Beyonce cover at the start of the encore.

During previous How to Dress Well performances, I wouldn’t go so far as to say the mood was “somber,” but save for an anecdote about hanging out with Maxwell, listening to Juicy J, I don’t remember Krell being as chatty with the audience as he was on Saturday—taking time for a Q&A early on, explaining what some of the new songs meant (going so far as to call “Burning Up” a “country banger,”) recalling stories about his past experiences in Minneapolis (including accidentally breaking and entering into an apartment he thought belonged to someone else,) and cracking jokes with Mikey Hart—frontman for Ex Reyes, and one of Krell’s bandmates on the tour.

“Sorry for so much stand-up,” Krell casually said at one point in between songs—though the crowd did not seem to mind, and it was refreshing to see him having so much fun on stage—both when singing, and not singing—and the demeanor of the banter only added to the positive and hopeful tone of the new material.

Translating an album as dense as Care to the stage was probably no easy task, and the band had no trouble both updating the older material to a full-band sound, as well as recreating the energy from the new record. It was obvious that Krell was having a blast singing these new songs.

The first time I saw How to Dress Well perform live at The Entry, you could have heard a pin drop in between each song. It was an intimate show, and everyone in the audience wanted (or in some cases, needed) to be there. You can never be sure what to expect from others at a concert—and sometimes it is a surprise to discover what kind of people like the same music as you. The audience at the Triple Rock Social Club show in March 2013 was not as respectful or rapt—there were three college-age girls in front of me who continued their conversation while Krell was warming up on stage, and the chatter from the crowd in between songs grew louder the deeper he got into his set.

Audiences at The Entry and in the First Avenue main room can be hit or miss. Sometimes people are surprisingly respectful, and other times, you’re standing next to someone who isn’t as big or serious of a fan as you are, and they are talking to their friend during the entire show. Saturday night’s concert was a 2/3rd’s mix—a majority of the crowd wanted to be there, but as the evening went on, again, the audience chatter between songs increased. It was specifically frustrating as Krell was attempting to explain the inspiration for “Salt Song.”

Balancing the mix of new, joyful material with older, fan favorite, and more emotionally weighted songs is not easy. Would I have been a little happier had they band played “Ocean Floor for Everything” or “Talking to You?” Yes, of course, but a setlist isn’t designed to please just one person in the audience. How to Dress Well’s show in Minneapolis brought a well executed blend of fun and catharsis, which at this point, was precisely what I needed it to be.

How to Dress Well is on tour nationally and internationally until the end of November. Care is available now via Weird World/Domino on 2xLP, standard single LP, and compact disc.