Tuesday, 17 May 2016

How To Dress Well's post-Kantian R&B

Originally published at ABC Arts Online, January 2015

Tom Krell, the man behind the How To Dress Well moniker, wears a plain white t-shirt to perform in at all his shows. The ensemble is invariably completed by dark tracksuit bottoms. Thin, fairly handsome and hardly flamboyant, Krell's personal style seems to define the spurious 'normcore' fashion categorisation of recent times.

Despite this casualness, each How To Dress Well concert is an event, an absorbing, atmospheric experience that may often be simply choreographed, yet offers something gently mesmerising. Krell carefully marries mood with his music, which can be described as a neo-soul-influenced, rhythmic and melodic take on sublime existential despair, that on first few listens may seem to dwell firmly in the realm of pop, yet with immersion becomes something more expansive and eclectic. On stage, there are shadows, projections, candles and two microphones. Krell alternates between them, one being 'clean', the other drenched in the reverb that frequently appears on his three magnificent albums, the latest of which is 2014's "What Is This Heart?"

These projections play a major role in making Krell's performances so interesting, and recently this aspect has been developed by a unique collaboration between Krell and multimedia artist Melissa Matos. Among the innovations is the fact that the projections, which are generally abstract, are 'controlled' by Krell's movements on stage. Matos's projections, manipulated by the artist live, react to and anticipate the singer's actions. Matos told Spin, for whose Connect Sessions the partnership initially served, "We're taking these textures and making them really interactive, a lot of his silhouette following him around as he moves. So Tom is really able to control what happens - depending on his different actions, he will trigger reactions on the screen."

Krell added, "If I'm doing a gesture, she tries to anticipate it with something visual… The visuals react to my gestures. So she's playing off the energy of the live set with the visuals and the actual visual aspect is playing off of my energy and gestures."

It remains to be seen whether Krell's Australian shows will incorporate such complexities, yet audiences can be sure of a performance that is genuinely unique in the contemporary world of pop; Krell rounds things out with some impish banter between songs that acts as a balance to their somewhat bleak nature.

Thirty-year-old Krell, who grew up in Denver and now lives in Chicago, released his first album, the well-received Love Remains, in 2010. But it was his 2011 release Total Loss that saw him define his artistic identity and explore what is a fairly unusual sound, yet one that paradoxically is heavily informed by mainstream nineties R&B. (He includes songs by Whitney Houston in his live sets, and previously 'I Wish' by R. Kelly, until allegations of Kelly's sex crimes resurfaced, rendering Krell's interpretation inappropriate). Total Loss also took its toll on its maker, with much of it inspired by the deaths of a close friend and a family member.

Then in 2014 he produced arguably his most satisfying record yet in "What Is This Heart?", another personal collection of songs that deals with his family, grief and existential disorientation. His vocals, higher in the mix than previously and frequently falsetto, emerge as the most poignant mode of expression, with the album largely transcending the R&B template with which he is associated.

Another aspect of his life that tends to follow this media-shy artist around is his doctoral study in philosophy. Krell has been reluctant to draw links between his academic research, which is apparently of the "post-Kantian" variety, and his music. Like other successful academics in pop, such as Dan Snaith of Caribou, the two passions do not inform each other, although he admits some overlapping is inevitable. He told The Quietus, "The ways in which they overlap would take a long time for me to explain, because it's not intuitive to say there's a common thread between this experimental R&B stuff and developments in 19th century logic, but I'm attracted to all the things I do for common reasons, which I can see personally."

Up until the slightly more positive "What Is This Heart?", the personal philosophy and worldview expressed in Krell's music was one of heartrending despair. Even on his latest, widely regarded as his most life-affirming, there are lines such as "There’s no design, no god, just the future in my mother’s broken heart" on '2 Years On (Shame Dream)', while on Total Loss personal heartbreak is married with a wider social nihilism. This is exacerbated when he says things in interviews like, "It's really hard to find an image of the world worth affirming. If you go on the news or if you do research in almost any field, you realize the world is a terrible place. I always think of this Wallace Stevens quote where he says, 'The world is ugly and the people are sad.' And I think that's at least 98 percent right."
Krell's mission as a musician, however, appears to be to complicate and blur this sadness – a Schopenhauer-by-way-of-Boyz II Men, he is not. Therefore, his dark musings are set against imaginative and colourful production that lurches between Justin Timberlake, Kanye West and even contemporary classical minimalism, and he is so sprightly and good-natured on stage. There is an energy, and a penetrating originality to How To Dress Well, suggesting that joy can be found in music, at least. This extends to his songwriting too – Krell's lyrics are generally arrived at through improvising or freestyling, something he also experiments with when performing, be it musically or with his visuals. The two percent of happiness he refers to can perhaps be found through creativity.

The other mitigating factor regarding the misery found in Krell's songs is the fact he refutes any notion of his music being directly autobiographical. He told Flavorwire, "I hope people don’t think that my music is autobiographical in the sense of, for example, the guy at a coffee shop with an acoustic guitar strumming and telling his life story. I’ve never pretended to wear that mask, and I think that as much as my music is confessional, it’s kind of obliquely confessional. It’s not really about getting to know me."

Such ambiguity makes for a deeply mysterious and alluring proposition, and for some the most fascinating artist on the music bill at this year's Sydney Festival. His show will be, both literally and metaphorically, shreds of light piercing a pervasive darkness.

How To Dress Well performed as part of Sydney Festival 2015.

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