When he’s not moving the sound of modern-day R&B forward as How To Dress Well, Tom Krell is in the process of obtaining his Ph.D. in psychology at Chicago’s DePaul University. This fact should come as no surprise to those who have followed his career over the past five years, beginning with the release of his mysterious 2009 EP The Eternal Love (alongside a half a dozen others) and most recently culminating with what Pitchfork proclaimed as How to Dress Well’s "modern masterpiece," 2014’s What Is This Heart?
On Krell's previous albums, he's borrowed from the sounds of R&B past and abstracted them with lo-fi fuzz and reverb to the point where the romance of the R&B just barely peeks through, like a ray of sun on a cloudy day. These songs are not immediately catchy, but instead, like many great works of art, take the appropriate context to be truly appreciated. Blast a song from Krell’s 2012 record Total Loss at a barbecue and you’re bound to get some funny looks. Play it through a pair of headphones while waiting for the bus and you’ll be on the cusp of realizing it’s genius.
That said, on his most recent album—the aforementioned What Is This Heart?—Krell is at his most accessible yet, but it still doesn’t distract from his genius. One of the most incredible things about Krell is his ability to borrow, but not appropriate, from artists of the past. It’s his ability to peek into what made something special, to glean the ingredients of why people love it, but not to copy. On his previous albums, he did this with such R&B legends as Michael Jackson, Ready for the World and Bobby Brown. On What Is This Heart?, Krell showcases influences from the likes of contemporary artists such as Frank Ocean and Chief Keef, being careful to never make it feel like stealing, but more standing on the shoulders of giants.
On Monday, August 25, Krell will bring his brand of alternative R&B to Portland’s Holocene. Seeing How To Dress Well in such an intimate venue (and one of his self-proclaimed "favorite venues in the world") creates the opportunity for music lovers to be enveloped by the litany of soundscapes that make up his songs. When you go, I suggest doing away with any preconceptions about what R&B should sound like and instead go in with open ears and an appreciation for where R&B is going.