Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: How To Dress Well I Am Toward You

Sargent House
Sargent House

All music is the product of thoughts and feelings, but Tom Krell’s derives from so many thoughts, from emotions felt so deeply. Most albums released into the music industry slipstream are presented with some degree of “director’s commentary”-style guideposts explaining how to think about the work — interviews, press releases, an official biography — even before getting into the common language of cover art, music videos, stage visuals, merch, and social media posts. Music is an ancient form of human expression; popular music, especially in the internet era, tends to be a multimedia art project. Krell understands both points, and with How To Dress Well, the great creative endeavor of his life, he goes beyond the norm to give the world a little extra. Or maybe a lot. Extra is who he is. He pours his whole heart and mind into his records, and then he gives you detailed footnotes.

I Am Toward You, out this Friday, is the first How To Dress Well album in six years. It arrives a decade and a half since Krell sent shockwaves through music-blog world with his earliest releases under the name, songs that reframed the sound of ‘80s and ‘90s R&B as faded memories, bathed in celestial light and laced with conceptual underpinnings of someone who loves philosophy as much as he loves music. His first three albums gradually brought that aesthetic into focus. They were released at a time when seemingly every indie rock band was dabbling in R&B — a trend Krell helped to initiate — and they made him something like a star. As he explains in an extensive document accompanying the new album, getting indie-famous didn’t pay the bills, so he tried to make something more digestible and expressly commercial with 2016’s Jack Antonoff-assisted Care. When Care failed to elevate Krell to new heights, he reacted against the careerist impulse with 2018’s fractured and noisy The Anteroom, an album that emerged from an intense period of ego death involving two-week silent meditations and hallucinatory experiences with sacred plant medicine.

According to Krell, making The Anteroom was a profound, life-changing experience, and it made him realize he needed to get away from the music industry for a while to fully recapture his foundational love of music, apart from business metrics. In the interim, he got married, finished a 400-page PhD dissertation on the possibility of non-nihilistic metaphysics, and became the father of a baby girl. Now he’s back with I Am Toward You, an album that harnesses the full expanse of that experience and revamps the sound of How To Dress Well in satisfying ways. It might be my favorite album he’s ever released.

The role of subtext and metatext in popular music has been a hot topic lately. Decoding rap lyrics is such a widespread pastime that Genius built a flourishing annotation business out of it, but as Drake and Kendrick Lamar have seized the public’s attention by trading diss tracks that require years of backstory to fully appreciate, seemingly the whole world has spent time sussing out the implied hyperlinks behind every bar. Although fans have always tried to decipher the real-life backstories behind their favorite artists’ songs, the practice has ascended to new levels of intensity thanks to a two-hour Taylor Swift album that blurs the line between a podcast and pop music in the conventional sense, that best functions (maybe only functions) with encyclopedic knowledge of her personal lore. So in some senses, an album like I Am Toward You, with its robust philosophical scaffolding and Pepe Silvia-level supplementary materials, fits right into the moment in some ways. Krell even jokingly called last week’s single “a diss track against people who say ‘everything happens for a reason.'”

When a musical artist puts a heavy emphasis on the ideas behind their work, they sometimes end up with tracks that fail to work as music, that are dependent on context to be appreciated. That tension has been present since the beginning with Krell, but his best records offer transcendent experience regardless of whether you’re familiar with his whole deal. “The conceptual foundation is interesting,” Mark Richardson wrote in Pitchfork’s rave review of How To Dress Well’s debut, “but Love Remains succeeds because you don’t have to think about that stuff to absorb its peculiar magic.” When you stumble upon a breathtaking work of art in a museum, you don’t need to read the plaque to understand why it’s great. The creative output has to connect on its own terms. With that in mind, your emotional response to an album like this probably determines whether the ancillary curriculum elevates the experience or bogs it down.

Fortunately, I Am Toward You is first and foremost a beautiful, moving collection of songs. Krell’s fragile falsetto once again quivers in the spotlight, still the unmistakable focal point of How To Dress Well. But the textures around that voice have changed a lot over the years, and the ones on this album are remarkable. Krell describes the new aesthetic as a combination of “pagan folk, ambient, slowcore, shoegaze, art rock, and, of course, r&b.” Some of those sounds come through more often than others, but the result is beautiful and unique: a collage of the electronic and organic, the fried and the dripping, the chaotic and the smooth.

It feels like a natural outgrowth of high-minded, pop-adjacent, internet-native music of the past 15 years — everything from Oneohtrix Point Never to the 1975 — yet Krell and his collaborators have remixed that history into something singular. Among them are the experimental electronic producers CFCF and Joel Ford, Trayer Tryon of the alt-pop group Hundred Waters, former Elite Gymnastics member Josh Clancy, Patrick McDermott of the American Primitive folk project North Americans, ambient composer Anenon, comedian and ACR indie rocker Aaron Charles Read, and Krell’s brother, the visual artist Dan Krell. They represent quite a range of sounds, all of which rear their heads at different moments on I Am Toward You.

The rippling new age synths and acoustic guitars of opener “New Confusion” evoke vaporwave-era computer music. “Crypt Sustain” begins with a triumphal bombardment of harmonized guitar leads and ends with a flurry of blast beats, like the Top Gun soundtrack filtered through Sunbather. “nothingprayer” backs Krell’s holy cloud of multi-tracked vocals with smooth-jazzy saxophone and delicate clean guitar, while “The Only True Joy On Earth” is nearly a cappella, save for some MIDI dulcimer hammer that contributes to the eerie feeling. There are crisp programmed beats, pleasant gusts of elevator music, even — in somewhat of a full-circle moment, given their shared origins as mysterious indie-R&B auteurs — moments that remind me of latter-day Weeknd hits like “Save Your Tears.” It all feels of a piece, diverse sounds melded into unity.

Into this shifting backdrop spill Krell’s reflections on love, fate, and the divine. The album title describes a concept that elicits great enthusiasm from Krell, and I’d do better to excerpt from his thoughts on it than to attempt my own summation:

*I Am Toward You* is an ethos, in a way, a way of calibrating one’s relationship with the past as well as the future, with fate (whatever that means – this is a major question I take up on this album), and with people, animals, spirits, the world. *I Am Toward You* is a way to comport oneself to someone beloved, for instance, or God, to focus on them with great intention, but in a non-determinative way. It is not the same thing as: I Know You, or I Give You All of Me. It is not the same thing as: I Comprehend You. *I Am Toward You* is a way of saying: I will allow myself to be pulled by your sway, even if I don’t know where you are heading, even if I don’t know where I myself am, even if I don’t know what ‘you’ are or what that ‘you’ is.

Later, he elaborates:

For me, IATY means: I am going to point myself towards what comes to mind or in time, towards the truth of what has been and will be, toward the essential or maybe inaccessible truth that is there undergirding all of the confusion of the present moment, the knottiness of the past and one’s pre-memorial childhood, the truth of past generations, the truth of the future, even if I don’t know what that is, even if I never know what it is. IATY says: I am not going to limit myself to a known reality at the expense of an unknown and infinitely more profound experience of reality.

On the album, these ideas manifest in evocative lyrics, lines that stick with you even if you haven’t unpacked them. “I wonder if I’ve ever made a right decision,” he sings on “Contingency/Necessity (Modality Of Fate),” later shifting to “I wonder if I ever made a single wrong decision.” Krell reflects on his childhood memories in “On It And Around It,” progressing from the quizzical phrase “My maiden name, I’d love to change my maiden name” to the open question “Is that my mother’s voice or the woman on Waze?” and the loaded couplet “They say God shows itself to us through death and pain/ I’d like to think there could’ve been a better way.” Elsewhere, he sings repeatedly of “holding on to nothing” and concludes, “The only true joy on Earth is to escape from the prison of our own false selves.” At the end of the album, a sampled voice repeats, “If there’s no wind in the sky, there’s no wind in the sky,” then it all goes silent, and we hear the beating heart of Krell’s daughter in utero.

All throughout, there’s enough of the plainspoken and relatable to latch onto, even without following Krell down the rabbithole into the deepest corners of his psyche. But just as the album can’t contain the full extent of his extensive theories — it’s hard to say the music speaks for itself when he’s offered such a flood of words to interpret it — this review can’t begin to catalog the ideas and experiences animating I Am Toward You. Like life, the album is overwhelming, and that’s part of its appeal. It can be enhanced by stopping to examine it, and it can be thrilling to get lost in the moment. I admire Krell’s ability to reward investment on both fronts.

The thought-provoking and heartstring-tugging commences right away on opener “New Confusion,” with Krell’s very first words: “I called to say goodbye to love/ I called the number saved inside as ‘LOVE.'” Later in that song, he lands on the mantra, “Hell is where no one has anything in common with anyone else,” as he relates the story of his own in-progress transformation into a crow. If you’re inclined to mime a jackoff motion and dismiss all this as pretentious, fair! When you’re attempting to transmute a philosophy dissertation into pop music, you’re bound to narrow your audience just a smidge. But the song’s musical splendor and Krell’s heartfelt conviction leave me swept up in his epiphany. For all its philosophical trappings, Krell’s music has always been vulnerable more than anything else. He lays his guts on the table, risking failure or rejection as he raises interesting questions. Rarely do I get such a sense that an artist is letting it all hang out like this. I haven’t fully comprehended it, and I might not totally agree with it, but it compels me to keep orienting myself in his direction.

I Am Toward You is out 5/10 on Sargent House.

• Myriam Gendron’s Mayday
• Amen Dunes’ Death Jokes
• Chief Keef’s Almighty So 2
• Gunna’s One Of Wun
• Arab Strap’s I’m totally fine with it 👍 don’t give a fuck anymore 👍
• Knocked Loose’s You Won’t Go Before You’re Supposed To
• Dehd’s Poetry
• A. G. Cook’s Britpop
• The indie-star-studded I Saw The TV Glow soundtrack
• Yaya Bey’s Ten Fold
• Orville Peck’s Stampede Vol. 1
• Kings Of Leon’s Can We Please Have Fun
• Jim White & Marisa Anderson’s Swallowtail
• The Tony-nominated Stereophonic Original Broadway Cast Recording
• Shannon & The Clams’ The Moon Is In The Wrong Place
• Yhapojj’s PS Fuck You
• Sofia Bolt’s Vendredi Minuit
• Hot Water Music’s Vows
• So Totally’s Double Your Pleasure
• youbet’s Way To Be
• Amy O’s Mirror, Reflect
• No Good With Secrets’ Another Side
• Rainbow Kitten Surprise’s Love Hate Music Box
• Mick Harvey’s Five Ways To Say Goodbye
• Mary Lattimore & Walt McClements’ Rain On The Road
• Take Offense’s T.O.tality
• Sublime With Rome’s Sublime With Rome
• Villagers’ That Golden Time
• Gabrielle’s A Place In Your Heart
• Judah & The Lion – The Process
• Big Special’s Postindustrial Hometown Blues
• Jordan Rakei’s The Loop
• Xana’s The Sex Was Good Until It Wasn’t
• Pokey LaFarge’s Rhumba Country
• Flamingosis’ Better Will Come
• Abigail Lapell’s Anniversary
• Thot’s Delta
• Friday Pilots Club’s Nowhere
• Clementine Was Right’s Tell Yourself You’re Going Home
• Bear McCreary’s The Singularity
• Bibi Club’s Feu de garde
• Morgan Guerin’s Tales Of The Facade
• Josienne Clarke’s Parenthesis, I
• Kelsey Waldon’s There’s Always A Song
• Vicky Farewell’s Give A Damn
• Sonic Universe’s It Is What It Is
• Angus & Julia Stone’s Cape Forestier
• Bossk’s .4
• Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats’ Nell’ Ora Blu
• Moonilena’s Minnet
• Brutus VIII’s Pure Gluttony
• Darkness Everywhere’s To Conquer Eternal Damnation
• Milan Ring’s Mangos
• Six Feet Under’s Killing For Revenge
• Arcadia Grey’s Casually Crashing
• Barry Adamson’s Cut To Black
• Iglooghost’s Tidal Memory Exo
• Sebastian Bach’s Child Within The Man
• vaultboy’s Everything And Nothing
• Borer’s Bag Seeker
• Paddan’s Fluid Time
• Killing Bees’ Racing Towards Ruins
• Sisso & Maiko’s Singeli Ya Maajabu
• Bayway’s Word Is Bond
• Dreamer Boy’s Lonestar
• Julia Pratt’s Family Feud
• Gelsey Bell & Erin Rogers’ Skylighght
• MRCY’s Volume 1
• Milan McAlevey’s Bucksport Motel
• Thunderpussy’s West
• MODECENTER’s Altes Glück
• Lunchbox’s Pop And Circumstance
• Group Listening’s Walks
• Fair Visions’ Quite An End
• LYLO’s Thoughts Of Never
• Jackie West’s Close To The Mystery
• Armlock’s Seashell Angel Lucky Charm
• Deep Tunnel Project’s Deep Tunnel Project
• Kiefer’s Something For Real
• Incubus’ re-recorded album Morning View XXIII
• Fruit Bats’ Starry​-​eyed, in Stereo live album
• Keane’s Hopes And Fears (20th Anniversary)
• Róisín Murphy’s Hit Parade (Remixes)
• GROUPLOVE’s I Want It All Right Now Deluxe
• Tom Skinner’s Voices Of Bishara Live At “mu”
• The Chainsmokers’ No Hard Feelings EP
• Greensky Bluegrass’ The Iceland Sessions EP
• Lewis OfMan’s Hey Lou Remixes EP
• Jack Manley’s Unmeasurable Terms EP
• Mary In The Junkyard’s This Old House EP
• Victoria Bigelow’s Songs For No One Vol 2 EP
• Waverly Drive’s Push My Luck EP
• flypaper’s another orbit EP
• Holland Andrews’ Answers EP
• Treanne’s 20/20 EP
• Snow Strippers’ Night Killaz Vol. 2 EP

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