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How to Dress Well - The Anteroom Music Album Reviews

Tom Krell’s latest album of ambient R&B club music feels both reverent and relevant, with icy textures and knotty lyrics that leave plenty to untangle.

How does one contend with the term “blue-eyed soul” when listening to the radio nowadays? Bazzi’s “Mine” or something by blackbear always seems to come up; Post Malone is perennial on pop and hip-hop stations. Post is technically a rapper but on “Psycho,” he is doing the same slurry crooning as his guest Ty Dolla $ign—who is not a rapper—and the line of what is R&B to a radio programmer continues to be confounding.

White guys are not just inhabiting the dirtbag tenderness space built in the early ’90s by Jodeci and now dominated in this decade by Bryson Tiller and the Weeknd. Since he first started releasing music online in the late 2000s, How to Dress Well (né Tom Krell) has been working with a palette that incorporates just as much traditional R&B as it does ambient electronic music. But as much as Krell’s music registers as “cool,” the evolution of his sound has been delightfully unhip. His 2014 album, “What Is This Heart,” was more adult contemporary but in a way that made obvious Krell’s grown and modernist vision of pop music. Krell’s latest, The Anteroom, is another endeavor of his polyglot pop fortitude, only this time instead he’s working with icier source material.

Krell’s intention was to make “an ambient dance record where the energy never goes above three out of ten.” Most of the album’s sensations are serene and spectral, often reminiscent of the ghostly electronic-R&B urtext, Burial’s Aaliyah-sampling “In McDonald’s.” The Anteroom is full of skittery electronics with hints of ambient and house textures that work as both as a marker for how outside of the margins Krell operates and how narrowly he deviates from his own previous innovations in the underground. His attention to detail—like corners of the haunting, warped vocals on opener “Humans Disguised as Animals | Nonkilling 1” and the tightly wound phrasing of the lyrics—is what makes the album shine. But in a year when electronic music feels more introspective than ever, calming dance music isn’t really a breakthrough thesis. The intent do something more slowed, oddly, puts him in the company of Post and co.’s Xanax-soothed renditions of R&B.

The lyrics on The Anteroom could work as a standalone chapbook with plenty to pick apart. A striking line comes from “Body Fat”: “There’s still so much pain and anger in your body fat.” It is really jarring to hear something that uses the same language of insult sung in falsetto. It is really jarring to hear the words “body fat” sung so tenderly, in general. It invokes that stoner wisdom that you can exercise the THC out of its storage in your own body fat before a drug test, as if anger and pain can be stored there, as well. The lyric could also reflect the language of body-shaming back to its listener and ring densely cruel with its invocation of pain and anger and fat, even though all bodies have it. I don’t think this is intentional, it’s just late-capitalism has designed the world to make me feel that way. This is the kind of experience, the untangling of his words, that Krell goes for here.

The last three tracks on the album are also worthy of their own study. Here, there is real friction, the kind of cross-pollination of pop, indie, and electronic that Krell excels at. Closers “False Skull 12” and “Nothing” are heavy with the self-cited influence of Coil’s pioneering experiments with new wave and industrial but through the lens of Krell’s own pop vision. On “Brutal (feat. Ocean Vuong) | False Skull 5,” he trills over syrupy boom-bap and pitched-up strings, another new terrain for a record so full of conventional riffs.

These pieces have the same intricacies as his lyrics and make for the most interesting music on the album, but they also skew the perception of where Krell fits in in 2018. Placid R&Bish pop by guys like blackbear and Bazzi works because its numbness is a palliative for the constant influx of heinous news and the din of social media. This is also why ambient is having an enormous resurgence in electronic music. Club music, however, is still a necessary tool to combat tough times and Krell’s soft club ventures don’t quite surprise like his hybrids usually do. He is at his best when he’s tinkering in territories where others are not.

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