Following the release of his third album What Is This Heart? in June – the youngest of the twenty-one albums I listed last month when considering the best music of the decade so far – and a tour throughout the United States which took from late August until the end of September, last week How To Dress Well began a series of dates across Europe. In recent years, I narrowly missed out on seeing How To Dress Well in London and in Amsterdam, performing on the back of his earlier albums, Love Remains and Total Loss. So I was eager to catch him this time round and, well prepared, I spent a few days in Manchester at the end of last week, centred upon his concert.
Supported by Nick Hakim – a Washington D.C.-born, Brooklyn-based guitar player whose sound manages to combine the atmospherics which have come to loosely define alternative R&B with elements of soul and country, and a casual surf vibe – How To Dress Well performed in St Philip’s Church, Salford, on the outskirts of Manchester city centre. The church was designed by the architect Robert Smirke – the original architect of the British Museum – and built in the 1820s.
Opening with ‘A Power’ from What Is This Heart?, Tom Krell is an immediate and visceral stage presence. Tall and slender, he is an intensely physical performer: his body thrusting with the beat of the music, his hands clenched and unclenched, his fist pounding against his upper chest. Yet where recent discourses on power in song, including Kanye West’s ‘Power’ and Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Backseat Freestyle’, have dealt complexly but forcefully with the appropriation of power – whether towards a scattered cultural supremacy, or as an overzealous youthful grab – on ‘A Power’ Krell asserts power as something he does not possess. ‘I don’t have the power’, he repeats against heartbeat percussion and reflecting keys, instead affirming a desire to ‘be’ sympathy. The momentum of the song was sustained through the following numbers, ‘Face Again’ and ‘Repeat Pleasure’ – one of the standout tracks from What Is This Heart? – before a change in pace with ‘Cold Nites’ from Total Loss.
Krell is warm and funny between songs: a remarkably confident figure, especially given the veiled quality of his first recordings; as outgoing to his audience between songs as he is within them. When a distant voice at the back of the church responded to his call for audience questions by asking, ‘Do you like Salford?’, Krell briefly discussed the merits of soul food.
His setup was familiar: two microphones, one clear and one producing reverb. He uses these microphones intuitively, modulating songs or providing momentary punches via astute utilisation of reverb; sometimes standing equally between both microphones; sometimes drifting away from both to allow his voice to flourish unfettered. Yet the recent journey of the United States saw Krell touring for the first time accompanied by a band. Long-time touring partner Aaron Read features on guitar; Larissa Loyva – who has previously toured with Destroyer – is playing keyboards; and Drew Byrne is on drums.
More, How To Dress Well is replete with a new audio director, and a new visual artist, Nicky Reed. Many of the visuals which accompany Krell’s songs are abstract patterns, which appear as though interiors of objects like textiles or ice blocks; and as the colours shift and the images tilt and stutter, the visuals effectively complement the music and make for an engaging spectacle. During ‘Childhood Faith In Love’, abstract textures were replaced by blue water and blocks of colour.
Some artists seem ill-suited to a church setting, but the sound and the overall aesthetic of How To Dress Well enhances and is enhanced by the church architecture: the focal point provided by the altar, the stained glass and chandeliers, and the high ceiling and sense of space – even if the prominent eagle lectern inside St Philip’s was disconcertingly suggestive of the Reichsadler. How To Dress Well’s music transcends at the same time as it is resolutely immanent. So on ‘Suicide Dream 1’ – the close to Love Remains, since reconstructed into the profoundly moving centrepiece to How To Dress Well’s performances – the graceful and tender final verse constitutes a newfound sensitivity to life and to the body even as it serves as an elegy for a close friend. And the personal connections which collect and build through ‘Set It Right’ ultimately provoke a blissful reverie. Still, early in the set Krell expressed his absolute commitment to his own body and to our physical world, and towards the end of his performance he invited the audience from their seats to stand and dance in front of him and his band.
Buoyed and encompassed by his bandmates, Krell’s voice was joined in a folk-like chorus on the lead-in to ‘Precious Love’, with these multiple voices then subsumed by the song’s billowing beat. Then following ‘Set It Right’, How To Dress Well’s set closed with ‘Words I Don’t Remember’ – the first sign of What Is This Heart? when it was released as the album’s first single at the beginning of March. Reappearing for the encore, Krell sung a beautiful version of ‘2 Years On’ which segued effortlessly into ‘Decisions’.
After six dates in the UK, How To Dress Well performed last night as part of the Pitchfork Music Festival Paris. Krell and his band play tonight in Brussels, before continuing their European tour on Saturday in the Netherlands, in Utrecht.