In 2016, Tom Krell, the man behind the project How to Dress Well, proclaimed, “there’s been a deficit of joy in music.” After gaining a following with songs that submerged attenuated falsetto pleas beneath a layer of electronics, he was moving “toward directness” on his Care album. The reason? “Because I’m just surrounded by the indirectness and amorphousness and impressionistic character of whatever 21st-century life is.”
Before the follow-up, The Anteroom, out today, that sentiment curdled into something more concrete and savage, a sensation Krell likens to being “shredded, truly, on the heights of despair.” Gone along with 21st-century “amorphousness” is Care‘s clean production style, the flat electronic drums and resonant keyboards that sometimes evoked Eighties acts like Crash-era Human League, the direct delivery of lines like, “had a nightmare about my Twitter mentions.”
In its place: screeches and scratches, itchy noises, agitated lyrics full of violent imagery (self-mutilation, “rotting flesh,” “break my skull”). Electronics have always been at the core of How to Dress Well, but now they’re molded in the manner of producers lumped together as “experimental” — Krell’s mix of influences released in the run-up to The Anteroom includes Lotic and Peder Mannerfelt — and borrowed from the more utilitarian world of techno.
That means garbled waves of noise: “Nothing” even features an effect that sounds like a snarling, snacking dog. It also means four-on-the-floor kick drums arrive to part the seas: “Nonkilling 6 | Hunger” is straightforward vocal house with all the right crunchy syncopations — an open cymbal splat-ing a heartbeat before the kick hits. This adds heaps of texture to How to Dress Well’s music, though The Anteroom sometimes creeps and lurches like an old car stuck in rush-hour traffic.
The album opens slowly, with extended falsetto ramblings and ruminations like those on “Body Fat,” which caused Krell to tweet, “ever thought, ‘hey, my heart is broken because I’m the palpitation of a massive misery coextensive with life itself?'” Then there’s an upshift for “Nonkilling 3 | The Anteroom | False Skull 1,” and around the 2:20 mark, a sequence of unabashed beauty emerges — what sounds like a looped choir, wailing high on the scale, and a rushed beat, rubbing fast against the calm background. As the melody thumps towards resolution, the final line in a series comes into focus: “When they ask you what you mean, your lips are moving, but the mic’s not on.” The narration suggests another nightmare, but amid all the musings on desolation, Krell has created a moment of joy.