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How To Dress Well's Brave, Real World

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By Kyle Kramer

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Photo by Zackery Michael

He fits no mold and has no friends, but I believe in my heart that someday something beautiful may come from him.” – “My Flamboyant Grandson,” by George Saunders

“Everything is terrible. That's a confirmed fact,” Tom Krell tells me, jovially, with only the slightest hint of exaggeration in his voice. Although he deflects the word repeatedly and offers up several similarly grim proclamations, he still strikes me as awfully positive as he studiously sets up the miserable framework from which we might begin to contemplate a viable way of living. Figuring out how to address this terribleness is an issue around which there's slightly less clarity, but the music Tom makes as How To Dress Well is one attempt at doing so.

We're in a quiet conference room that's been made more calm by our discussion laying out the same questions that pop music and, hell, basically any form of human inquiry have always addressed, in whatever uncertain ways: What is love? How should a person proceed through life? Where can we find happiness? Lanky, bespectacled, and dressed in loose-fitting, monochromatic clothes, Tom projects a relaxed authority and casual enthusiasm as he deliberates over each of these problems. The obvious response, in the face of the previously established bullshit realities of human existence, is a cynical one—spite, dismissal, perhaps a retreat from sincerity. How To Dress Well's music is pronounced in its lack of cynicism.

“There's a possible wager you can make, that in the future things can possibly get even minimally better, or that there could be great things for you personally, for people in general, et cetera,” Tom continues. “And I think unless you make that wager, there is absolutely no room to grow.”

"What Is This Heart?", How To Dress Well's third album, is his smoothest attempt yet at navigating the terms of that wager, a delicate but self-assured assemblage of tense electronic atmosphere-building, pop experimentation, confessional songwriting, and open-ended vocal emoting. The album is more polished and, as Tom notes, “patient” in its composition than previous efforts, which include 2012's Total Loss, 2010's Love Remains, and a preceding set of EPs. A few things have quite literally come more into focus: most of the obscuring vocal effects and blown-out production that defined How To Dress Well's early work are gone, while the shroud of anonymity that covered 2010-era releases done over Blogspot has been replaced by an album cover that is a portrait of Tom's face.

Above all, "What Is This Heart?" is the project in which the long-running promise and potential of How To Dress Well as an undertaking resolves itself, escaping the almost cloying emotional landscape of those early albums and finding more space, as well as more fully resolved images and ideas. Somewhere between the natural inclination toward bitterness and the glossy ideals of traditional pop, How To Dress Well contends, is a third approach of tempered optimism. Love exists and is good, but in How To Dress Well's music it's suffused with mortality, and it's constantly brushing up against human limitations.

“Frankly, there's not a lot of pop songs about what it's like to actually be alive,” Tom explains. “Most pop songs are about what it would be like if we were immortal, which we're not by any stretch of any imagination.” Even some trusted sources of optimism, like, say, looking toward the future, are less enticing under a certain lens of realism. The album's closing song, “House Inside (Future Is Older Than The Past),” echoes something Tom's mother told him in the midst of a depressive episode: “We think that the future is just this new horizon full of possibilities, but it's actually full of all your old shit,” he paraphrases. “Every day, basically every single day, you just are throwing the trash of your memory into the future. So when you get there it's not like you're going to turn a corner into the future and it's a green field. It's just a fucking pile of trash.”

In many cases, the experiment of making pop music about real life on "What Is This Heart?" comes down to talking about love, of creating a portrait of love not only as it really is but as it realistically should be. The album is shot through with what Tom calls “these weird, missed moments of communication that led to failed relationships, these moments of not communicating that are at the center of successful relationships.” There's a complicated idea at the heart of certain songs that part of having relationships that work is allowing elements of those relationships to fall short of what might be seen in a lot of music as desirable: the need for total honesty and revelation, the suggestion that “we don't have to sacrifice anything, that we can be everywhere all at once.”

Oddly, for how open it aims to be, How To Dress Well's music in many ways avoids personal narrative. Tom projects an air of humility and effortless intimacy onstage and over social media, and he comes off as far more easy-going and casual in person than his music or the academic veneer with which he discusses it might suggest. At the same time, he's not particularly forthcoming with biographical details in conversation, eliding seemingly relevant information about his family or his own long-term relationship with his girlfriend in Chicago—you know, the kind of things that might suggest some personal insight or significance for all those musings on love and relationships.

The story Tom offers is simple: He grew up in Boulder, Colorado, in what he describes as a “pretty average” suburban environment, and he moved to New York for school, which also included a stint in Germany. He's returned to Germany repeatedly, but he moved to Chicago roughly three years ago for the purpose of completing a PhD in philosophy at DePaul University. Key to the How To Dress Well narrative are three oft-repeated threads: On the night Tom moved to Chicago, his best friend died; soon thereafter, a close uncle died; and, critically, his family has “a lot of mental illness and disability.”

For the most part, Tom discusses this information with little explanation, generally only embellishing to inject more ambivalence toward each element in a way that almost discourages looking to his biography for context (although he is enthusiastic about his high school emo band, A Far Away Place). He's much more comfortable talking in the abstract, which kind of makes sense when he's, say, musing about the way relationships can boil down to two people enabling each others' worst tendencies or theorizing about his ideal of love, which is a kind of lived-in relationship that only comes after decades.

“One of the main things that I've thought about over the last few years is there's got to be a passageway between pure, honeymoon, lustful, idyllic love and two people getting together just because their pathologies allow one another to be as neurotic as they possibly can be,” he says at one point. Songs like “Precious Love” and “Repeat Pleasure” explore what this might mean, in the form of an acoustic devotional about a sustainable love dressed up as a wobbly, cascading electronic composition and a beautiful, neatly delivered disco nod about passion, respectively. A lot of pop music approaches love with a level of certainty, but How To Dress Well embraces ambiguity and makes doubt beautiful.

How To Dress Well also doesn't shy away from vulnerability, distinguishing it from much of the blog-friendly, electronically oriented alt-R&B that takes its aesthetic as an influence. Tom calls this an “extreme misinterpretation” of How To Dress Well, and it's easy to see why. While many contemporaries tend to hide flimsy ideas behind layers of obscuring production and hinge their appeal on a poised, cool, presentation, How To Dress Well can be cheesily earnest, and "What Is This Heart?" can come off as simplistic as it tries to parse the language of love.

On “Very Best Friend,” a distorted electro-pop song that's probably the worst on the album but also one of the most interesting, the lyrics are impressively direct: “I want you, I need you” and, later, “just know that you will always be my very best friend.” Discussing this song, Tom gets excited, offering an explanation as well as a sense of the way he processes music. He writes by freestyling lyrics and melodies over rough instrumentals, which means that, for all the conceptual annotation he offers, his songs actually come together in a raw way that's only slowly deciphered with theory.

“Very Best Friend” grew out of an a cappella repetition of “I need you” that Tom compares to a hymn. He then explains it by quoting the poet Wallace Stevens on the way metaphor is used to distance language from simple truths and pointing to emo bands as a way he “learned about love through this ridiculous, histrionic form of music.” The way he frames the attempt to distill a love song to its most important message is at the heart of what makes How To Dress Well compelling, as a project that's constantly looking for ways, whether through lyrics or swollen bursts of noise or minor key detours, to depict pop themes with more shading.

“I think that when we try to write about love or try to think about love, we are immediately thrown into this fucking reservoir of stock phrases, some of which might even be super beautiful,” he says. “I'm not saying just clichés. Even beyond the first, second, and third level of clichés, there's still stock things we say about love.” How, he suggests, can we get beyond that?

The centerpiece and lead single of "What Is This Heart?" is “Words I Don't Remember,” a slow burning cascade of woozy synths and bombastic drums that meanders through ideas of what it means to allow another person space as a form of trust, to give up the possibility of certain individual pursuits, to maintain a bond that is conceivably for the rest of life. When we talk about it, Tom poses a simple but kind of thorny question: We might say that we love a TV show or we love a painting, but there's never a suggestion that that love is exclusive and lifelong. “So what is it about this love for this person that distinguishes it from my love for all these other things?” Tom wonders. The song isn't conclusive. It builds into a crashing, wordless crescendo, with Tom's disembodied falsetto floating over the top in what proves to be the most devastating, beautiful, and resonant part.

When Tom performs live, he uses two microphones, one of which is crystal clear and the other of which is coated in reverb. These two voices define How To Dress Well, in a way. To some extent, the goals and appeal of "What Is This Heart?" can be discussed in the abstract, as intellectual ideas, which is something that Tom obviously excels at. But it's still music, and its impact is often in what is unsaid, or even in the immediacy of the way the words come out. While a lot of discussion of How To Dress Well over the past few years has focused on the way it repurposes R&B influences, it's also hugely indebted to experimental and ambient music, which Tom explains helped him realize “ that there's a way to use sound as the primary affective engine” or the main source of emotional impact.

Also, to the extent that How To Dress Well's music is both highly personal and carefully articulated in its goals, it's surprisingly divorced from specifics, especially discernible events, places, and people. Thematically its aims are broader than capturing, say, a city where Tom has lived, and, in this way, its aspirations are unequivocally pop.

“I've just never really felt geographically determined,” Tom says. “I've never really written a song and been like 'this is my Berlin song.' It just sounds stupid. I want to write at the level of universal humanity.” Likewise, he studiously avoids the suggestion that the music might be tied to specific relationships, even as he immediately cuts to core emotional ideas: “I realized in writing this record, there's so much dialogue. There's things I overheard two people say to one another that I didn't really understand. There's things that I said that I, in hindsight, wish I hadn't. Things I didn't say that I wish I had, things that I said that I didn't understand what the full implications of saying those things would be.”

Two weeks ago, How To Dress Well performed in front of a small crowd, many of them friends, at a tiny venue on New York's Lower East Side. His setup was quietly ambitious, with a band that featured a few more live instruments than he'd had on hand the last time I saw him perform in late 2012 and a set of abstract live projections. He bantered lightly with the crowd, shouting out a friend mentioned in “Set It Right” who was handling those projections (the one for that song involved a lot of lightning, turning it into even more of a power ballad), and explaining that he'd kind of cooled off on performing one of his signature covers, R. Kelly's “I Wish” (“Weird that none of us remembered about R. Kelly”). But two things in particular stood out that illustrated the value of How To Dress Well's music to me. With closed eyes, beating his chest with one hand as he got lost in his songs, Tom struck me as a sort of imperfect pop diva, the vibe of the performance coming across as a sort of cobbled-together, low-budget pop spectacle. It seemed perfectly representational of what How To Dress Well is all about.

How To Dress Well songs don't always quite click, his voice sometimes doesn't quite live up to the task that he sets out for it (to be fair, his falsetto is also often incredible). But then again, we, as humans, don't always quite live up to the task of whatever is required to handle all the miserable parts of life. Nonetheless, the same goal stands: Try your best to make the world a better place for someone else, even if maybe you fall a little bit short. That's the simple answer to all the terrible stuff, the hopelessness the future may seem to hold, the impulse to be crushingly cynical—embrace love. Toward the end of the show, he did a rendition of “Suicide Dream 1,” from Love Remains, telling the crowd he'd written it for a friend who'd passed away. The muffled on-record performance from four years ago became, in this setting, something simpler, more emphatic.

“When I sing it I always feel joyous,” he said, reflecting onstage for a moment afterward. “I never expected to feel that way.”

Kyle Kramer believes the world is such a pretty, pretty thing. He's on Twitter - @KyleKramer

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