I just can’t understand why “dated” keeps describing music in the pejorative sense — how can you live in the moment if you’re constantly worried about how something is going to hold up in an unforeseeable future? What’s the fun of following pop’s trajectory if you can’t put a timestamp on a piece of music and remember, “Yeah, that was 2010 right there.” This is all preface to saying that I still adore How to Dress Well’s Love Remains and, also, it’s the most 2010 album I can think of. It turns 10 years old today, and it sounds exactly that old and that young.
Let’s review how Tom Krell earns this accolade. For starters, it took a minute to learn anything about How To Dress Well, let alone Krell’s name, and this was still a time when “enigmatic electronic producer” was a phrase you’d find in every other track blurb. And while How To Dress Well never really fit into chillwave — for one thing, Love Remains is extremely unchill, bearing two songs named “Suicide Dream” — it’s at least adjacent to the genre. Krell sang in a pinched falsetto, obscured by endless reverb, and Love Remains was released on Lefse, the label that put out the genre’s first definitive LP (Neon Indian’s Psychic Chasms), along with a host of kinda-sorta wavey benchmarks: Keepaway’s Baby Style EP, Youth Lagoon’s The Year Of Hibernation, Houses’ All Night, and Teen Daze’s All Of Us, Together, amongst others.
One of Krell’s early blog posts was titled “I Started Remembering In 1989,” and his obsession with ’80s and ’90s ephemera aligned him with the experimentalists that populated Altered Zones — the Pitchfork-hosted constellation of blogs that got a lot of shit while incubating some of the most influential electronic acts of the ensuing decade, such as Grimes, Salem, and James Ferraro. I’ll also argue that, among many other reasons, 2010 was the end of a decade rather than a beginning of a new one because so many artists at the time were obsessed with the concept of memory; specifically, how it’s subject to decay and rot, setting Love Remains up as a kindred spirit of the Caretaker or William Basinski. But unlike those artists, Krell was not working in the avant garde with 1930s ballroom recordings or the specter of 9/11 — Krell is a quintessentially 2010 artist because his primary medium for memory was R&B.
“Indie” — whether we’re talking about the actual genre of “indie rock” or just the industrial complex sustaining it – was deep in the process of litigating its relationship with popular R&B at the end of the aughts. Despite the “GAPDY” blog-rock hegemony of 2009, some of the biggest acts from the year were quite overt about taking ownership of their R&B influences. Before forever revolutionizing the sound of clothing stores and dorm-room makeout sessions with xx, the xx were covering Aaliyah rather than Young Marble Giants or whatever else was deemed a necessary comparative point to keep them within the realm of “indie.” Dirty Projectors’ “Stillness Is The Move” was unabashed Mariah Carey fanfic that rendered its domineering frontman (and only permanent member) as an afterthought. Even Merriweather Post Pavilion was produced by a guy who earned his stripes working on Bad Boy projects.
But this wasn’t really what came to shape “indie R&B,” or … sigh, PBR&B, a regrettable term that’s still valuably descriptive in terms of speaking to what was happening around acts like How To Dress Well. It didn’t strictly translate to “white R&B” or “R&B for white people,” despite its damning sobriquets: Given their current stature, it’s worth remembering this nebulous concept included Frank Ocean covering Coldplay and dedicating a song to Coachella on Nostalgia, Ultra, the Weeknd sampling Beach House and interpolating Siouxsie & the Banshees, and Miguel releasing his Art Dealer Chic mixtapes the next year.
Krell was bringing some serious egghead perspective to R&B he otherwise described as “lo-fi Shai.” The first thing most of us learned about Krell was that he was pursuing a philosophy PhD in Cologne, and the standout track on Love Remains was a blown-out waltz titled “Decisions” featuring Yuksel Arslan — not a guest vocalist, but rather a Turkish painter heavily influenced by Karl Marx. Krell did interviews with the game-changing basketball blog FreeDarko, a kindred spirit that imparted hardcore academic analysis on both Dipset and Gilbert Arenas.
“I was one of the first people to start a trend that is now completely dominating independent music, which is the interrogation of independent music’s relationship with pop music,” Krell boasted in 2014, though How To Dress Well’s approach to R&B was both deeply reverent and deconstructive. As homage, “Ready For The World” was far more blatant in its intent — the proof of concept for How to Dress Well’s early phase isn’t exactly a cover song, though it has explicit source material, namely the Flint R&B group from which it takes its title.
Ready For The World followed up their #1 single “Oh Sheila” with “Love You Down,” a quiet storm slow jam that grazed the Billboard top 10 and was reincarnated as a fun and flirty dance track by INOJ in 1997. I don’t have any concrete memories of hearing “Love You Down” on the radio, seeing it on MTV or BET, or having the embarrassment of hearing it in the car with my mom permanently etched into my brain, a la “If I Ever Fall In Love,” “Bump And Grind,” “Freak Me,” or “Humpin’ Around.” And yet, when MF DOOM riffed on its opening lyrics for Madvillainy’s “Great Day Today,” I knew I had heard it somewhere. A similar sensation arises when R&B and pop songs from that era get sampled or played at the supermarket and, despite having no recollection of actively seeking this music out, it’s as if I absorbed it through some kind of osmotic phenomenon when radio and MTV were my sole source of cultural input.
I imagine Krell has similar things going on. This wasn’t like Dirty Projectors trying to “reimagine” Black Flag’s Damaged from memory on Rise Above. “Ready For The World” is what you might happen if you could literally add sound to neuroimaging of Krell’s brain trying to reconstruct “Love You Down” — the lyrics are indecipherable, seemingly improvised; the melody is contoured just enough like the original to be considered a tribute; the rhythm has lost all definition and the handclaps are jarringly off-time. “Love You Down” was initially intended as between-the-sheets music, and “Ready For The World” sorta is too, just in a “restlessly tossing and turning at 3AM” way.
This is how the most distinctive tracks on Love Remains work — a respectful sonic corruption. Krell cycles through his mental Rolodex of New Jack Swing beats and lets them rock on “Endless Rain” and “Mr. By And By” for three straight minutes; imagine finding corroded Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston Pocket Rocker cassettes and playing them in an empty hockey arena and that’s how you get “You Hold The Water” and “Date Of Birth.” “You Won’t Need Me Where I’m Goin'” lopes and bucks like a country song rather than bumping and grinding; another review described it as “the Pains Of Being Pure At Heart dunked in water.” “Walking This Dumb” is murky post-punk not all that far removed from what Women did on Public Strain around that time — it’s tagged as “live,” though I still wonder if its title is a fakeout like “Feat. Yüksel Arslan” because there is applause at the end. Those early How To Dress Well shows were rough.
Love Remains was largely cobbled together from the half-dozen or so EPs that How To Dress Well released in the year prior, so the patchwork, mixtape approach to genre and sequencing is intentional. Yet it all sounds of a piece because Krell’s production aesthetic eliminated every solid edge by blasting everything with pressure-hose reverb and distortion. You could liken it to concurrent releases like Wavvves or Treats, but despite Krell’s professed love of black metal acts, Love Remains wasn’t a rock album by any stretch, or really even one that needed to be played loud. The reverb is uniformly harsh and abrasive, the vocals crackle and dissolve with digital clipping at any volume — the texture of Love Remains is more like a scorched marshmallow, one that’s cooled off just enough to eat.
The shapelessness of the album also speaks to the most common conceptual criticism of How To Dress Well – its ethereality and cerebrality completely eliminated the carnality from R&B, “whitewashed” it in more ways than one. My podcast cohost Steven Hyden once called How To Dress Well as sexy as “a surgical glove dipped in mayonnaise.” Fair enough, but sexiness wasn’t really the aim of Love Remains. I vaguely recall Krell saying that he wanted his music to feel like a kid crying alone with his radio on while his parents fight downstairs, but I can’t seem to find its source (a common pitfall when exploring albums that were primarily buoyed by dead blogs). I just really hope he said it, because it’s perfect. Even a glance at the titles — “Can’t See My Own Face,” “Escape Before the Rain” — make it clear that Krell was more interested in disembodiment than coupling.
As it turns out, Love Remains will forever remind me of late 2010 and early 2011 because that was the most disembodied and disengaged time of my entire adult life. Amongst other buzzy albums with smudgy, opaque cover art, Love Remains was my go-to during a span of months where work mostly consisted of spending late nights in comedy clubs, partying at comedy festivals until passing out in hotel rooms, and then coming in and out of consciousness on hungover flights back home (it’s a long story). This was not sustainable, obviously, but Love Remains endured when that all ended and I was jobless and single, waking up at 4 o’clock and only knowing whether it was AM or PM if a weird bowl game was on.
You’ll oftentimes hear in various forms of recovery that insomnia is one of the greatest risks for relapse — it’s not heading out to the old bars or dealing with life’s inevitable disappointments that causes slips to happen, but rather, being up at 3AM and unable to sleep because you’d usually just pass out. Indeed, in those early days of drying out and leaving that old life behind, I spent countless, excruciating early morning hours listening to mp3s on Altered Zones. Love Remains was somehow soothing despite it all.
At the time, Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson praised Love Remains as “the biggest breakthrough in home-recorded lo-fi in years” – and he’s not the type to get easily fooled. He did not call it the biggest breakthrough for pop or R&B, though it soon became clear that Krell and his ilk were not trying to stay on the margins. The next few years saw Autre Ne Veut, Twin Shadow, and Krell himself putting out stunning sophomore records, maintaining their discomfiting loner appeal even when the sound itself became big-budget affairs. Sure, 2012’s Total Loss included an Ashanti interpolation and the involvement of the guy who mixed and recorded the xx. The first two songs were also a Basinski homage and a pained, militant slow grind produced by Forest Swords — relatedly, I really wish Forest Swords produced more pop songs.
“What Is This Heart?” followed in 2014, a self-conscious leveling up where Krell set his ground rules for being “pop, but not populist” – “I want to be #1 on Billboard, but I want to do it on my own terms,” he told Pitchfork, which sounds weirdly rockist on its own terms. In 2014, it was hard to argue that acts like the Weeknd or Beyonce or Frank Ocean were catering to record label demands, yet this is how Krell saw himself on “What Is This Heart?” — an album filled with songs that could potentially compete on the charts while maintaining his outre edge. The biggest jam, the one that really screamed hit single, found him singing over Tim Carleton and Darrick Deel’s “Opus No. 1.,” the most famous piece of hold music ever recorded.
I adored “What Is This Heart?” and assumed most others did too, but Metacritic tells a different story: It’s HTDW’s lowest-rated project by a good margin, and a lot of critics actively hated it. Krell’s big pop move was dismissed as “an album that will straight up put you to sleep,” one that “cycles through every tired adult-contemporary R&B trope in the book.” Reviewers called Krell’s voice “insipid” and took issue with his “dejection-by-the-numbers lyricism,” ironically absorbing the same critiques once leveled on the emo-pop that had apparently served as a major influence on the album. He made a fuss about getting into bands like the Starting Line and put a track on a teaser mixtape where he sang “At Your Funeral” over a Crash Of Rhinos instrumental. I’m not surprised that music of this sort sustained me for a few years before I became more aware of the actual emo bubbling up out of mainstream view — it’s essentially a guy with an imperfect voice just emoting all over the goddamn place without any sense of irony.
“The disconnect between Krell’s pop leanings and his innate miserableness has never been greater,” one critic wrote in 2014, as if miserabilist pop itself couldn’t be a thing. The eventual takeaway was that Krell just wasn’t built for this, much like his peers. I still can’t figure out how Twin Shadow failed to parlay his undeniable charisma and swagger to actual pop stardom and instead ended up with a major-label flop like Eclipse. Autre Ne Veut put out The Age Of Transparency, which pushed his avant-garde leanings and jingle-writing facility to incompatible extremes, but at least the “Panic Room” video has its moments.
How To Dress Well’s 2016 album Care brought Dre Skull and Jack Antonoff into the fold, which only served to demonstrate Krell’s limitations. It was a mixed bag that an act like How To Dress Well couldn’t afford to make at a point where the critical zeitgeist was prepared to turn on him. “Krell’s seeming intelligence, combined with his curiosity and talent, inspired a generosity in his listeners, a willingness to read great meaning into ostensibly simple lyrics,” Jonah Bromwich noted in a brilliant Pitchfork review of Care, hoping that we’d reached a place such in-depth critical analysis applied to all acts, whether or not they were philosophy grad students.
But does this analytic approach really illuminate the art? As put forth in this also brilliant review of Scoop Jackson’s new book The Game Is Not A Game: The Power, Protest And Politics Of American Sports, Jay Caspian Kang took a withering look at the relationship between primarily Black sports and their attendant myths, “created by white men who are earnestly, and often clumsily, trying to understand their subjects,” a thread continued in a recent Jeremy Gordon blog post titled “White men can’t blog.” Kang and Gordon were mostly referring to Grantland and FreeDarko and really the entire culture of 21st century sports/culture crossover blogging that resulted in posts like “A Trenchant Analysis of ‘Get Em Girls'” or whatever. (I was extremely part of this world, for what it’s worth.)
I couldn’t help but feel like Krell might have been implicated as well. Fair enough. Though his work was occasionally clumsy and almost always earnest, there was never a trace of irony or elitism or condescension; for all of its high-minded aspirations and sonic impenetrability, Love Remains was meant to be felt, first and foremost. If the conversations Krell helped start in 2010 led to Love Remains being something of a relic at a time when people in the “indie” music world don’t have to be so coy or coded about liking R&B, I imagine he’d consider it the highest compliment.