To understand how Tom Krell made it to the point at which he’s legitimately taken cues from Celine Dion on his fourth record, you have to go back to the start. His debut as How to Dress Well, ‘Love Remains’, was a paranoid and glitchy affair - as Tom himself puts it, “it involved me taking pop as a form and shattering it with noise, ambience and electronic production.” The follow-up, ‘Total Loss,’ was a shimmering exercise in restraint and perfectionism; from start to finish, it felt like an album that had been sculpted in meticulous fashion not only to Tom’s sonic demands but, more crucially, to his emotional remit.
In 2014, he put out ‘What Is This Heart?’, and slackened his grip a little; the tension and tautness of ‘Total Loss’ was eschewed in favour of an earnest investigation of his out-and-out pop influences. There were also points where he pulled out his signature gut-punch - ‘2 Years On (Shame Dream)’, about the death of a friend, was an uncompromising way to open - but he suddenly seemed at ease with the sheer breadth of his musical tastes. Melody and harmonies won out on a record that, in terms of its touch-points, ran from Michael Jackson to The Weeknd.
That trend continues on ‘Care,’ Tom’s fourth LP. He’s let go of the nervousness and insecurity that characterised his earlier work - not in lyrical or thematic terms, where it very much continues to imbue his writing - but more when it comes to embracing collaboration and his varied listening habits. “I’ve taken the route that’s the total opposite of the one that my first record followed,” he says. “I’ve preserved the pop form completely, and then tried to sneak in value-rich writing and some intense choices, ideas and concepts. Just to see if they can still stand up.”
It’s well-documented by now that Tom is a scholar both literally and figuratively; he earned his PhD in philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago last year. That depth of thinking and his almost obsessive need to analyse is evident in the way he conducts conversation. Speaking over a Transatlantic phone line a few weeks before ‘Care’’s release, the alternative pop label is very much on his mind. “I mean, take FKA twigs,” he says, bordering on exasperation. “twigs does not make pop music. twigs makes the most lit, wild, experimental music - there’s just straight-up, nothing pop about most of what she does, it’s just left-field and progressive. On the other side of it, you’ve got somebody like that band Wet. They don’t make alternative music. They just make great fucking pop music in a very traditional way. I feel like I’m the only person in the middle. I don’t know anybody else who’s trying to do what I’m doing,” he claims.
"Right now, I’m writing from life, and life is this super confusing, schizo-capitalist reality.”
— Tom Krell
'Care,' you suspect, is the right word. An enormous amount of forethought and delicacy goes into crafting the songs that Tom deems fit to wing their way into the world; tons of basic ideas have always gone by the wayside during the writing process, with this record being no different. “I write all the time,” he explains. “I probably write ten songs a week on average. A lot of these new ones, I actually wrote and demoed on tour in Europe; ‘Made a Lifetime’ was originally called ‘Halloween in Brussels’, because - guess what - I wrote it in Brussels, on Halloween. I like being able to get a pencil sketch down, because it opens up more avenues for me. I can listen carefully over a few weeks and months, and say, “you know what, this shouldn’t be a painting, it should be a sculpture, or a film.” I can translate things much more imaginatively, and the emotional tenor can change, too, in line with the way my life is changing.”
The final versions of the songs on 'Care' were recorded between New York, Los Angeles, Montreal and Tom’s hometown of Chicago; something that he puts down to “utility. It depended on where the people I was working with were.” There was one exception to that, though, when he hit a particularly stubborn instance of writer’s block. “I rented a house on Lake Michigan for, like,four days, and went up there and smoked weed,” he recalls. “That’s not something I ever normally do, but I felt like I needed to trip out and come up with some new concepts. That’s when I wrote the secret song on the record, and it was that track that felt like the turning point - like I’d really made the breakthrough I was looking for.”
One person in particular that Tom found himself bouncing around the States in order to work with was Jack Antonoff, the fun. guitarist turned super-producer who helped mastermind Taylor Swift’s '1989'. “Jack asked How to Dress Well to tour with his band in 2015, and I said no," explains Tom. "It wasn’t the right thing for me at the time, but he still wanted to get together the next time I was in Los Angeles. I went to his place, we wrote a song together, and it’s actually going to be a big single for a really big artist - I’m kinda freaked out. After that, we’d hang out whenever we were in the same city, and one day, I played him some How to Dress Well demos, and he was super keen to produce some of them. The more I thought about it, the more I realised he could fucking smash it. He’s such a dope dude; I remember when I first met him. It was a weird situation. There were a bunch of people around who’d worked on 'Lemonade', the Beyonce record, and I got nervous, but he came straight over and gave me a big hug. I thought, “OK, cool, he gets it.”
"I don’t know anybody else who’s trying to do what I’m doing."
— Tom Krell
Tom took to Twitter recently to explain to his followers that, on 'Care,' he “tried to make every song a possible favourite song on the record. Those kinds of albums always make me so happy.” You have to wonder if that statement marks him suggesting that he’s moved towards making music in the same way people consume it - often song-by-song, with the rigidity of the album concept less important than it was.
“It wasn’t so much that,” he says after a long pause, “and more...I mean, think of your absolute favourite fucking albums. Like, what was your favourite album when you were, say, fourteen? Think about, say, 'Fevers and Mirrors' [by Bright Eyes]. As you fell in love with that record, your favourite song was probably that 'You are my sunshine!' one (‘The Calendar Hung Itself...’). Because that track is super intense, but then, six weeks later, you were probably thinking, 'oh, actually, this other one is my favourite song now.' That’s what I was talking about, falling in love with records like that and going down that path of being, “this is the tune on this album,” and then months down the line, you’re, “oh, actually - low key - this is the big fucking moment.”
Instead, the stylistic diversity that runs through both 'What Is This Heart?' and 'Care' is born out of Tom’s broad tastes and unwillingness to discriminate. “I still love the album as a form. I love the Porches record, and I love the Palmistry record, and if I’m putting them on, I’m listening to the whole fucking thing. People wondered how I could have a song like ‘Childhood Faith in Love’ on the last record next to an acoustic track, but I listen to music that way, too. I don’t distinguish, I just fucking love music, so I can go, on a playlist, from a rap song to a Julianna Barwick song to a metal song. Probably the way our generation grew up is that we were listening to Bright Eyes, but also listening to Nelly, you know? So, when I hear a new twenty-minute ambient piece that blows me away, I’m still gonna put Kodak Black on afterwards.”
“I’ve preserved the pop form completely, and then tried to sneak in value-rich writing and some intense choices, ideas and concepts. Just to see if they can still stand up.”
— Tom Krell
The sheer breadth of the album’s musical scope is something that spills over into its emotional spectrum, too; ultimately, there’s balance between light and dark, but that doesn’t mean that the record doesn’t sail close to the extremes at either end. “Life is always going to inform my writing,” explains Tom.
“I want to create something that reflects the fact that you can go from having an intense fight with your girlfriend to laughing at a meme on Instagram, to making up with your girlfriend, feeling really in love again, and then switching on the news and being like, 'oh, shit, police brutality. Fuck! Life is a nightmare'. In the twenty-first century, we’re just blasted from so many angles, with so many different experiences. I love art that’s super delineated, and maybe one day I’ll make a record that’s ten songs on the acoustic guitar, but right now, I’m writing from life, and life is this super confusing, schizo-capitalist reality.”
Critics and fans alike will make their own minds up about how successfully Tom has managed to keep a whole dinner service’s worth of plates spinning on 'Care'. On a personal level, though - however high-profile his collaborators, and however accessible the record sounds - it all comes back to his creative satisfaction. “It’d be pretty lit if a song of mine were to blow up commercially, but that’s not really the rubric,” he muses. “That’d be like a side bonus. I just gauge it in terms of my truest gut feelings about these songs. I need to be completely in love with them, and then if my friends, my family and my core fanbase feel the same way, that’s where the affirmation is. I’ll listen to something like the second chorus on ‘Made a Lifetime’, and I can remember recording it - the way I was smiling as I was singing those lyrics. That’s success to me: something that doesn’t feel counterfeit when you try to cash it out.”
'Care' is out via Weird World on September 23rd.