Album Review: How to Dress Well - The Anteroom
Over the course of roughly six years, Tom Krell’s sonic ascension, as How to Dress Well, was very gradual—each step made sense: from the murky and cavernous bedroom recreated ‘lo-fi R&B’ of his debut collection Love Remains, to the bombastic, Technicolor, infectious, and slick pop music of 2016’s Care.
Each step made sense, sure, but each step also was a surprise that revealed the growth and development that Krell was going through as a person, a songwriter, and a performer.
Care didn’t fall so much on deaf ears upon release, but the opened armed embrace of pop music led the album to be a bit misunderstood and maligned by both critics and some of his audience—something that was, presumably, difficult for Krell, considering how much work he had put into the project.
As a response, Krell recently, at the start of the roll out for his fifth full length under the How to Dress Well moniker, said he was no longer going to be making music ‘for the algorithm.’ That rejected sentiment is very, very clear the moment The Anteroom begins—it’s also clear that Krell has not so much ‘retreated’ to his earlier sound, but he has definitely rediscovered some of the elements he worked with when he began making music so many years ago.
Spanning roughly an hour, spread across 13 tracks (with two additional pieces included on a 10” vinyl record if you bought the special edition of the album) The Anteroom is intended to be consumed as a whole.
Don’t be mistaken—it isn’t 13 songs; it’s 13 tracks, yes, but it’s really, like, 20 individual pieces of music, sewn together as an immersive, expansive sound collage. It can be intimidating at first, and at times, unnerving and partially inaccessible, but juxtaposed against all of that, there are some gorgeous and welcoming moments—making an album that is not so much comprised of contradictions or opposites, but it is a convergence of myriad influences and ideas that create a place both wonderful and strange.
Structurally speaking, The Anteroom is fascinating. Well in advance of the announcement of the album, Krell released the titular track as a stand alone single; it was paired with, more or less, a collage, or preview, of other bits of the album—called Land of The Overflowing Urn, “The Anteroom” was sandwiched in with pieces of “Vacant Boat,” “Nonkilling 1,” and “False Skull 1.”
Those tracks all appear here, in the album’s final form—the segues on The Anteroom are all named either “Nonkilling” or “False Skull,” then followed by a number; the fascinating aspect of all this, though, is that Krell was able to cut together a seven minute, self-contained preview of the record, removing the pieces out of their original context within the larger collage.
While it can be a challenging listen at times, this shows just how ahead of itself and intelligent of an album The Anteroom is—it’s a self-referential song cycle that, believe it or not, is capable of still functioning outside of itself.
If that even makes any sense at all.
Listening on compact disc, or off of a computer, then album runs seamlessly, as intended, giving the listener no chance for a break from the environment created. The vinyl edition is spread out on two LPs—the first side featuring four tracks, with each of the others featuring three.
With an album built to run without interruption, it seems like a disservice to split it up abruptly when the end of a side has arrived—however, The Anteroom seems to have been broken up with thought and care, giving the listener a break, yes, but also finding somewhat logical stopping points, or chapter conclusions, at the end of a side.
Using the word ‘dense’ to describe the album—both musically, and lyrically—seems like a drastic understatement. Lyrically, it seems to find Krell at his most personal, and possibly his most exposed as a person, not just a songwriter or performer. He still writes using evocative, fragmented imagery—but throughout The Anteroom’s cycle, despite the icy exterior that the music creates, lyrically he wants to invite the listener in. It’s full of poignant observations and pensive, thoughtful reflections—a meditation on living life within the utter chaos that is 2018.
And with those poignant, often philosophically based observations about the self, and ruminations on being alive in these tumultuous times, Krell—known for his howling, other worldly falsetto, manages to use his voice in a number of diverse ways as The Anteroom unfolds. Right out of the gate, on “Nonkilling 1,” he taps into that haunted, higher register, slowly singing the stark lyrics—“I thought it was a pool of blood, but then the cameras stopped/There’s no goal, there’s no god, break my skull, rip it off.”
In a sharp contrast, the next piece on the album, “Body Fat,” bounces along slowly with almost whimsical instrumentation, and Krell’s voice barely rises above a whisper as he delivers one of the first of many really reflective lyrics of the album—“There’s just so much pain and anger in your body fat.”
There is a darkness, yes, and even a violence to many of the song’s lyrics, and many of the ideas are repeated or repurposed in other places on The Anteroom, adding to the cyclical, seamless nature of the album; the darkest arriving at the album’s cacophonic, explosive conclusion, in “Nothing”—“Now it’s all or fucking nothing,” Krell exclaims. “Like you never had to hurt anyone. I could see you there—like the child wishing the ambulance was for them.”
But it’s not all skulls, and blood, and the absence of god, or harrowing considerations like, “And in the movie of your life, you only speak in one scene,” from the titular track; no, Krell gets even more personal on the album’s third side, with the double shot of “July 13 No Hope No Pain” and “Love Means Taking Action.”
Not so much mirror images of one another, the two work as companion tracks, seemingly charting a serious discussion between the two protagonists—the former plays out like a spoken word piece, with Krell not even so much singing a bulk of the lyrics as he speaks them while the jittery synthesizer programming oscillates underneath him. The latter unfolds over an airy, 1980s inspired synth, with the tension escalating—“She said, ‘I’m tired of taking your shit,’” Krell sings, quietly, in the first line, then shortly after, in a moment of self-awareness, “She said such profound things to me that I can’t repeat—words that won’t fit neatly on a simple beat.”
Musically, The Anteroom is a night and day difference between Care, and even 2014’s “What is This Heart?” It’s an impressive amalgamation that finds Krell as a musician—something that is often forgotten, I think, because in live performances, he is usually just singing, not playing any instruments—working primarily with Ben Babbitt and producer Joel Ford to create the album’s complicated sound design.
Krell, as a song writer, hasn’t completely forsaken pop music—there are still little moments here and there throughout The Anteroom when you’ll find something that’s a little more hook or groove oriented—a subtle nod to his love of 1980s and 1990s R&B. However, a majority of the album is structured around glitchy, desolate sounding electronics, with minor detours into incredibly harsh dissonance and noise (often beginning or ending a piece); it’s not nearly as murky or as discordant as Love Remains—the no-fi bedroom recorded aesthetics are now replaced with a marquee name producer—but Krell hasn’t abandoned murk completely. Midway through, on “Ceiling For The Sky” and “A Memory, The Spinning of A Body,” there are some pretty heavy Burial influences that arrive, adding another (surprisingly) layer to the density of the record.
In the Pitchfork review1 of the record, it mentions Krell’s intention, musically, with The Anteroom, to make an “ambient dance record where the energy never goes above three out of ten.” I suppose that is accurate, and one way to describe it, though that sells it short.
Yes, there are a lot of ambient electronic elements, but there are parts where the tempo of the album does pick up slightly—could one ‘go hard’ in the club with parts of The Anteroom? Sure—if the club was filled with a bunch of sad people who want to cry and dance at the same time.
Krell exercises a lot of restraint in the way he deploys the electronic elements of the album—it’s all very deliberately thought out and expertly manipulated. Synth arrays, drum machines and skittering beats, and chopped up samples—for a record that is as skeletal as The Anteroom can be sometimes, it is clear just how labored over it was—making it all the more impressive of an experience.
It’s described as ‘a single continuous piece of 21st century psychedelia,’ and in an interview with Spin, Krell said that working on this album either almost killed him or saved his life. It’s a drastic 180 from the direction he was headed in with Care, but How to Dress Well, as a project, has always been evolving, and for right now, this is the next logical step—a harsh, electro-infused personal statement that reflects on two years living in Trump’s America, as well as reflecting on one’s self—where they have been, where they are, and where they are going.
There are moments, or selections, that can be picked out as ‘singles,’ or whatever—the title track, “Hunger,” and “Body Fat” were all released in advance of the full record, but this is really meant to be experienced from beginning to end. The Anteroom isn’t the kind of record you toss on while in the car, or while eating dinner.
Even when it reaches its most danceable, slithering peaks, it’s still meant to be consumed while sitting in front of the stereo, not so much lost in thought, but being open to the ideas presented within.
For those who sprung for the ‘limited edition’ vinyl pressing of the album, along with the alternate cover art, The Anteroom came packaged with a clear 10” record containing two additional tracks—“Sunrise Song” parts one and two—subtitled “A Meshwork of Decisions Made by Fearful Creatures Plays Me Like A Game,” and “You Will Have Had A Name, And I Will Have Sung It,” respectively.
The songs included on the 10” are, truly, for longtime How to Dress Well fans only—they serve as a small companion piece to The Anteroom, but do not really add, or detract, anything from the album’s complete experience. The first “Sunrise Song” is the stronger of the two—structured around a pretty sick guitar (and very uncharacteristic) sample, which gives away to a pulsating beat with Krell dipping back into his penchant for pop melodies.
“Sunrise Song” part two finds Krell in mostly spoken word mode, recalling a tale in which his puppy accidentally ate a chocolate covered hallucinogenic mushroom—from there, it spirals into a very unstructured, sprawling piece with Krell reflecting on The Anteroom itself, his own anxieties, and much, much more; musically, it’s a fascinating composition—a low, rumbling beat keeps things moving quickly, with eerie, atmospheric synths coasting along the top of it. The way Krell delivers his lyrics, possibly intentionally, are incredibly similar to Phil Elverum’s cadence in a number of Mt. Eerie songs.
His foray into pop music for adults may have not exactly worked out the way he wanted, but no matter what genre, or sub-genre, Krell is operating in at any given time as How to Dress Well, The Anteroom is a true achievement for him as an artist—an introspective journey that is both melodic and unsettling, further cementing Krell, despite his own anxieties about his body of work, as a fearless artist who continually makes music on his own terms.
1- It seems worth noting that Pitchfork more or less turned their back on Krell’s music with the release of Care; they gave his first three records high ratings and the title of ‘Best New Music.’ The Anteroom received a 7.3, but a bit of a backhanded review.