Sunday, October 28, 2018

album review: 'the anteroom' by how to dress well

So I wasn't expecting this. 

And if you've been following Tom Krell's career arc as How To Dress Well the past few years, I think that's a reasonable statement to make, as he's gradually taken steps away from the misty, melancholic alternative R&B sound to something more pop-friendly, culminating in 2016 with Care, an album that did not totally stick the landing but did provide me with 'Salt Song', one of the most infectious and gripping indie pop songs of the decade - if there was something that should have gotten a single push, it was this! But with that being said, pop was not a natural fit for Tom Krell, so if he was going to stay in that lane, I expected some careful tuning and refinement for the next project - hell, it'd probably be more lucrative in the long term, right?

What I didn't expect was this, the sort of genre pivot that flew not only in the opposite direction but also past his alternative R&B roots to something quite different, what he's described as 'an ambient dance record where the energy never goes above three out of ten'... which could work, I guess? It's hard to tell, it might fit closer into Tom Krell's comfort zone but it also seems like the sort of experiment that could misfire if he wasn't careful. So alright, fine, what did we get out of The Anteroom?

You know, throughout the first four or five listens through this, I honestly didn't think I'd have enough for a full review, that'd I just wind up putting this on the Trailing Edge as an overlong, frustrating genre pivot that honestly gets a little toxic the more I dig into it... but on some level I have to talk about this album because simply explaining the roots of those feelings is tricky, especially as some are praising this as a return to quality. But for me... yeah, I can see an audience for this, but it's the How To Dress Well album I would find the most difficult to revisit, and I don't think it plays to any of his strengths, especially coming off the songs I've loved from his past two albums.

And to discuss why this is the case, we have to start with the biggest change: the production. Now I'll freely admit I don't have the greatest set of comparisons in electronic music when it comes to the increasingly dour and distorted tones that Krell picks up on this project, but in comparison with the fluttery pop arrangements and co-production from Jack Antonoff, this is a pivot, especially considering the embrace of glitch, increasingly icy synth tones, and beats that feel more blocky and sterile. Hell, the vocal production itself is often more layered and muted, with Krell's willowy tones and admittedly strong falsetto often buried behind reverb and distorted masks - which might as well be my first issue out of the gate, because while I get the artistic purpose for doing this, Krell's delicate but emotive tones have consistently been one of the biggest draws, so why obscure it? And that's before you consider that these are some of the harshest electronics that he's ever worked with, and it can be a mixed bag whether the tones actually compliment each other when the skittering grooves feel discordant or off-rhythm - on the one hand you get the scrabbling, distorted whirs around the title track, or the borderline SOPHIE-esque stuttering of 'Vacant Boat', except this time with competent mastering, but on the flipside you get all the awkward glitchy fragments around 'Body Fat' or the incredibly slapdash bass mixing and inability to sustain a groove on 'A Memory, The Spinning Of A Body', or the chiptune shoved into 'Hunger', or how incredibly aggressive the closing track 'Nothing' tries to be and it just leaves the wrong sort of sour note coming from Tom Krell, less convincingly angry and just pissy. And a big part of this is how gothic this album is trying to be, and while most of this comes through the lyrics - we'll get to that - but the brand of goth that Krell's approaching is more primal and guttural, and while it might be mirrored in some of the glitchier elements, you get the sense a truly potent edge has been muted away, especially with songs that can rarely build to a stable groove and all seem to go on way too long. And Krell's played fast and loose with structure before, but given how much of a knack he had for a stable, developing hook that we heard on Care, I don't think pitching that out the window was a smart choice, especially when we get songs like 'Love Means Taking Action' that could have had swell... but don't.

And this takes us to the content - and I'll give How To Dress Well this, I've always admired the ambition to push the lyrics into weirder, more conceptual and oblique territory, and The Anteroom is by far one of his most abstract and impenetrable records to date. You get snippets surrounding a relationship that sputtered out juxtaposed with a disturbing amount of gory iconography, oceans of blood and exposed skulls and a disturbing amount of cannibalism, where when on 'July 13 No Hope No Pain' Krell references a brother who got into black metal, and there's a part of me that can see a similar influence creeping here. And hell, like black metal when you can make out the lyrics the poetry is actually pretty good, and the symbolism mostly comes together in the story being told. At the very broadest level Krell was writing this record to chronicle a particularly dark period in his life, and it's easy to see that the act of writing it is wearing on him heavy, as well as a breakdown of a relationship that plays out across the album. We'll get back to the latter in a second, but what I actually really like about songs like the title track is how it calls Krell out directly in his lack of courage to truly end his life, and it targets the performative elements of his angst in his art, highlighting a certain cowardice to truly deal with the end consequences of death. And as much as the cannibalism pieces feel lurid, it's an apt metaphor for artistic consumption of another in a relationship like on 'Hunger', and there is a certain power in the woman repeatedly calling for Tom Krell to deal with his shit, and when he can't, she leaves him.

And yet if we're looking for what really sours me on this album, it's the issue that's been keeping every How To Dress Well album from greatness and it's more evident here than ever: framing. To put it bluntly, Krell's self-awareness is very inconsistent, and he seems incapable of taking solid responsibility for the things he says, does, and does not do in this relationship. The first and more immediate example is 'Body Fat', where he's got a yearning artistic connection with someone and he wants her to work through her own demons, but he describes them as 'there's still so much pain and anger in your body fat' - and he sings it like he's trying to be tender and sympathetic! And if he was intentionally trying to say the worst thing possible in the most dissonant way, I'd almost applaud him... except similar awkward choices keep surfacing and it's not like framing hasn't been an issue for Krell before. The passive-aggression directed at the negative signals and how he was good for her on 'A Memory, The Spinning Of A Body', the numb hurt she faces on 'July 13 No Hope No Pain' where any attempt to try and sympathize comes across stilted and undercooked, and with 'Love Means Taking Action', he describes losing his best friend because he 'feels blue' and now 'it sucks' - I mean, for all the poetic abstraction, you're defaulting to this, doesn't it kind of make your message feel a bit shallow? But where it truly tilts into toxic is the closing track 'Nothing', where he goes all out on the blame game and it leads to the messy situation where I'm not sure if the song is from hers or his perspective. If the former... it's possible and it's palatable, but it ends the album on a dark note that doesn't match with the other chosen iconography and especially doesn't fit after 'Brutal', where the split was framed as inevitable. If it's from his perspective... well, it winds up feeling incredibly bitter and doesn't make any sense, because if he dealt with his shit and took action or stopped directly channeling her issues into his art, this could be resolved. Either way, it might be a realistic ugly ending, but there's no catharsis or sense of conflict reaching its end point, just a flat sense of pissy inertia and stasis, none of which Krell can convincingly convey, no matter how many vocal filters you pile on.

But in the end... look, I'll be blunt and say that I don't like this that much. The poetry is decent enough and I think there are some decent ideas in the electronic fusion, but the grooves rarely coalesce in a satisfying way and the framing means good poetry gets pushed to ugly ends. And for Krell who has spent so much of his career projecting vulnerability and aching emotion, this is a painfully awkward turn at best. As such, this is a very light 5/10, only recommended for the diehard fans, and even then it feels like I'm being generous. If you're curious or more into electronic music, give it a try, but you may wind up very disappointed - I know I am.

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