Intimacy is hard to convey in music. When Tom Krell, under his How To Dress Well alias, emerged in 2010, his debut Love Remains reinvented what R&B as a genre could usually stand for. Amidst a wall of drone and ambient music, he sounded haunted, his voice distilled and opaque. Much like his contemporaries at the time — James Blake, James Woon and FKA Twigs, among many others who roam around the so-called “alt-R&B” tag — Krell managed to carve out sound in silence. To find hope in times of depression.
Six years and three albums later, Care finds the How To Dress Well project going on an opposite direction. Ditching his once amorphous sound, Krell managed to embrace pop music as a stepping stone. Speaking of the new album, he said that “Care is nurturing for growth, and care has interesting shifts between being a noun and a verb, in terms of being something that is necessarily enacted toward others and can also be turned on oneself.” Care is a big, confident and lush-sounding pop album. One could ask if that is enough, though.
Opener “Can’t You Tell” sets the mood: it sounds gigantic and universal, even sonically adventurous. It also signifies something very specific: most of the songs off Care rely on their sound. That is, for the first in his career, How To Dress Well has released an album focusing on a stadium-sized audience, resonating stadium-sized feelings. There is a sense of confidence that is reflected in his new pop sound — that is perhaps why Krell enlisted, for Care, producer Jack Antonoff, who collaborated with Taylor Swift on 1989, as well as notorious sound designer CFCF. Those are all interesting choices: they demonstrate how HTDW wants to unite the best of both worlds — the popular, the mundane and the introspective. The unknown.
That move — going pop, going big — comes with a certain price. Tom Krell’s songs have always been nocturnal and grim tales of sadness, whose beautiful nature perfectly matched its ambience — that was alt-R&B after all, a microgenre himself helped define at its earliest days. His songs were also anthems, of course, hymns for the lonely and broken hearted. Care distorts the discourse and adds full-blown euphoria and optimism to the cause. That is when many problems start to come up.
By going big, Krell has not changed the way he composes. He’s only changed the format — the sonics, that is — and hasn’t adapted his narrative. This way, we still get the intimate, the supposedly personal, but with a change in mind: he provides a stunning sonic palette to wrap up his songs. There is some distance between the two — the message he is conveying and the songs themselves — almost to the point of sounding as if the production is a mere complement to his once personal tales. Care is a typical case where the production suffocates the artist and the personal, almost overshadowing him completely. The effects on “Time Was Meant To Stay” do not let me lie. The ten-minute long “They’ll Take Everything You Have”, closing the album, acts as proof too.
Everything here is beautifully made, of course, but Care sounds insincere, mainly due to the focus on its production, something which works against its well-intentioned aspect. It is technically competent, flawless even, but the personal never really stands out. It is all about a simple contradiction: by going bigger than anything that preceded it, Care has the emotional resonance of a postcard; by trying to reach everyone, its emotional core reaches nobody.
That said, 2016 has been kind to a type of discourse towards femininity and love — how it works and how the human eye can perceive it. In cinema, that rings particularly true when we take a look at movies like The Model and The Neon Demon, works focused on dissecting the male gaze in the twentieth-first century. As for music, in this year so far we’ve got Lemonade and, most importantly, Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound, an album which conveys a whole new world on love and caring — about what it is like to be alive, to be intimate and personal with other people. How To Dress Well’s Care wants to depict those things too, and that you can tell by how bright it tries to shine and how big its pop appeal is — it wants to find and confirm an identity, a voice. “It’s important to affirm yourself in the gutter, when you’re pathetic—there’s a lot to learn there,” Krell once said of the new album.
That is a curious stance on his pursuit for an identity. For a work so focused on finding it, Care’s biggest problem exists in the lack of friction and conflict. Everything is so beautiful and profound and unique that you might as well not feel anything. Almost as if it never existed. Perhaps because, after all, it doesn’t. C PLUS