“Are you listening to Ed Sheeran? What’s going on?” This was my wife, when she walked in on me listening to the new How To Dress Well album last week. It was a fair question. Just a few years ago, Tom Krell emerged on the internet as a murky enigma. But both in music and in public life, he’s gone through a lightening. And now, if anything, we know too much about him. (Depending on how you feel about the lyrics on the new album, Care, we might know way too much about him. More on that later.) Over the years, the reverb has drifted away from Krell’s music, and plainspoken warmth and conversational ease have come in. On the new album, he’s working with actual pop professionals, guys like Fun./Bleachers crunch-pop mastermind Jack Antonoff and budding Brooklyn dancehall mogul Dre Skull. And while his phrasing and his melodic flourishes are clearly as entrenched in commercial R&B as they’ve always been, he still sounds more like a guy whose music comments on R&B than a guy who makes R&B. And that means he’s got the same basic relationship to black American popular music as a guy like Ed Sheeran does. He’s a fascinated admirer, but when he tries to sing like that, you can hear the quotation marks hovering around the words. If anything, now that the reverb is mostly gone, you can hear those quotation marks all the more clearly.
That reverb, it seems obvious now, was more of a defense mechanism than anything. Krell makes deeply self-conscious music, and he makes music about self-consciousness, which means his self-consciousness feeds itself. If you are enough of a dork to be reading music criticism on the internet, there’s a good chance you know that vicious-cycle feeling, that state of overthinking everything and being unable to stay out of your own way. Krell makes music about that place where you’re worrying about the fact that you worry too much. The opening lines of the new song “Anxious” are some of the most troublingly relatable things I’ve heard in a long time: “Why am I so pathetic? / Why am I addicted to such attention? / When all I want is that love and affection? / Had a nightmare about my Twitter mentions.” And all that unease gets even more uncomfortable when it comes to sex. On Care, that happens a lot. This is Krell’s album about sex — about having it and about not having it. And there is a very good chance that Tom Krell should not have made an album about sex. I like the album a lot — it’s Album Of The Week during a pretty busy week — but that little disclaimer needs to go right up front.
This is, after all, an album that starts out with this line: “Wanna lay you down, take you right there, can’t you tell?” That opening track, which Krell has called both a “consent-pop song” and a “sex-positivity anthem,” is maybe the most awkward thing Krell has ever written. It’s a big clammy stammer, with a message that pretty much reads this way: “Um look, I’d really love to fuck right now, but only if you’re cool with it. But I mean, it’s fine if you don’t, but you look so good right now, and I really want to fuck.”
I could be misreading things there. But Krell sings over and over, in forced and sweaty ways, about being extremely into somebody, about that first honeymoon period of a relationship where you just can’t believe that you’re so into this other person and this other person is so into you. That’s an amazing feeling, but it can be a tough one to express. And there are moments on Care where Krell tries so hard and fucks it up so spectacularly — like he’s trying to dunk from the free-throw line and he comes four feet short and breaks his knee upon landing. Consider: “I’ll always be indebted to how warm skin is.” Or: “I said I love your thoughts / The way they wander with such energy / Also I love your thighs.” At one point, Krell is lost in one of his wow man, life is crazy reveries, and he offers up this quick little narrative: “I was with a boy when he went crazy, took the car we were driving in and crashed it / No one understands what happens until you see that shit happen.” You think maybe Krell was in that car singing about thighs? Maybe the kid heard that and decided it was time to end it all?
So: This is an easy album to clown. But it’s also an album I really like. I have my reasons. For one thing, as grand and specific as Krell’s failures can be, they’re noble failures. He’s trying things. He’s attempting levels of lyrical self-disclosure that would make Change-era Travis Morrison say that, hey, you might want to dial that back a little, might want to act like you’ve been there before. He could coast on vagueness; that, after all, is what brought him his internet-fame in the first place. Instead, he is laying his whole soul out there at every opportunity. One song after he’s singing about laying you down and taking you right there, he’s singing about having a dream about a conversation with his own toddler self. There’s no filter there. Every messy thought is coming through, and there’s something oddly thrilling about this
And then there’s the music itself, which is fucking gorgeous, which goes beyond even the levels of gorgeousness that Krell managed on 2014’s great “What Is This Heart?” A lot of the credit has to go to Dre Skull, who contributes production to more than half the songs here and whose involvement in this album fascinates me. Dre Skull is the guy behind Mixpak, one of the most quickly ascendant labels in the world right now. He’s the guy who embarrassed Wiz Khalifa and Wiley in a London arena at this year’s Red Bull Culture Clash, the guy working behind Popcaan, maybe the biggest dancehall star in the world right now. He’s a guy with Drake’s number in his phone. And here he is, helping to craft these immaculate synth-ripples for Krell’s tremulous, fragile falsetto. The other contributors — Antonoff, the Canadian impressionist CFCF, the avant-gardist Kara-Lis Coverdale — are all there to do the same thing. Their styles are all radically different from one another, and yet it all fits together because it all serves Krell’s grander vision. The songs behind that voice are precise little symphonies. They draw as much from ’80s soft rock as from circa-now R&B, and that style honestly fits Krell’s voice better. And they make Krell’s digressive, self-conscious, occasionally ooky musings sparkle like pop music. That can’t be an easy thing to do.
Look, I have a stake in this. I’ve never met Krell, never emailed with him or anything, but for entirely subjective reasons, I’m rooting for him. Like Krell, I happen to be a tall and gawky white guy named Tom. We’ve both expressed our love of predominantly black pop music in ways that make us look like dipshits. We both owe our livelihoods to the music internet of the last decade. We’ve got to stick together. If you’re not predisposed toward liking this guy, you might have some problems here. Care is going to be a divisive album. There are people on the Stereogum staff who definitely wish I did not pick this album for this space this week. There will be people who will not be able to stand this album. I get that. But it’s an album worth fighting over — an album where the failures are as fascinating as the successes, where the failures and successes might even be the same things.
Care is out 9/23 on Domino.
Other notable albums out this week:
• Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam’s classically scratchy I Had A Dream That You Were Mine.
• Neurosis’ epic, thunderous chug Fires Within Fires.
• Billie Marten’s assuredly gloomy debut Writing Of Blues And Yellows.
• Warpaint’s layered, blissful Heads Up.
• Flock Of Dimes’ sunnily idiosyncratic full-length debut If You See Me, Say Yes.
• Beach Slang’s revved-up hormone-fest A Loud Bash Of Teenage Feelings.
• Ty Dolla $ign’s as-yet-unheard Campaign.
• LVL UP’s big indie rock leap Return To Love.
• Merchandise’s gothy retreat into murk A Corpse Wired For Sound.
• Ex-Cult’s Ty Segall-produced trash-rocker Negative Growth.
• Trap Them’s grindcore ripper Crown Feral.
• Mick Jenkins’ thoughtfully wordy The Healing Component.
• Devendra Banhart’s thoughtfully shimmery Ape In Pink Marble.
• Valborg’s death/doom trip-out Werewolf.
• Giraffe Tongue Orchestra’s surge-rocking debut Broken Lines.
• Dysrhythmia’s deep prog-metaller The Veil Of Control.
• Public Access T.V.’s hooky rock debut Never Enough.
• The Royal They’s choppy self-titled postpunk debut.
• Dinowalrus’ swirling, jangling Fairweather.
• Boxed In’s smooth dance-rocker Melt.
• Cinemechanica’s mathy self-titled post-hardcore debut.
• Anthony And The Mountain’s personal electro-popper I Felt Tall And Full Of Blood.
• Dwight Yoakam’s honky-tonk return Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars.
• Marissa Nadler’s home-recording collection Bury Your Name.
• Torrid Husk and End’s black metal split.
• Bruce Springsteen’s memoir companion Chapter And Verse.
• The Trolls soundtrack, which I understand will have some Justin Timberlake songs on it.
• MADEIRA’s Bad Humors EP.