Since 2010's Love Remains, every How to Dress Well album has moved Tom Krell from the fringes of the stage further toward the spotlight. On his latest record, the succinctly titled Care, the Chicago artist has embraced directness in a way unlike that of his previous releases. Whereas Love Remains and 2012's masterclass in R&B deconstructionism, Total Loss, were concerned with stripping down the genre's constituent parts then zooming in on their elemental power, Care is his most pop-friendly and sanguine effort to date.
Working with collaborators including Montreal musician and producer CFCF, Jack Antonoff of Bleachers and fun., and Mixpak boss Dre Skull, Krell also drew inspiration for the album from a diverse range of artists. From Canadian pop icon Celine Dion to dancehall superstar Popcaan, we asked him to share ten songs that helped shape Care, and explain their importance in his own words.
Suicide – "Dream Baby Dream"
This song is so special to me and it was a huge inspiration for this record, because I was deep into Suicide from a kind of goth rager/no wave perspective, and when I first heard this song I was like, "Holy shit, this is like the most punk thing they could ever do." It's so fucking beautiful and melodic. It's just such a badass move on their part to do a song like this.
The reason it never feels repetitive is that of the pleasure with which Alan Vega sings. This is also why they were so controversial. In punk rock circles, you were supposed to be angry about what you were singing, you weren't supposed to luxuriate in the words. The pleasure that he takes in singing the words was horrifying to people in that scene.
Cities of Foam – "Last Man Standing"
This is a big touchstone for me in terms of the new record because it's right on the edge of being complete goofball. It's pure buoyant happiness in song form. There's no moment where it turns serious, there's no moment where real piano comes in to give it some gravitas. This was a huge influence for "What's Up," where I just let it ride and feel playful.
Celine Dion – "On ne change pas"
In the 2014 Xavier Dolan film Mommy, there's a scene with this song, and it was a real teaching moment for me. It was like, "Oh shit, I get it now. I get what pop music does now." It's not just escapism—there's something more complicated going on where pop music presents an oasis in the desert of contemporary reality. I started to think to think about what we call "pop music" now, and how it's basically as old as contemporary neoliberal capitalism—it starts roughly around 1980. And I started thinking more and more about the value in pop music which is self-consciously positive. Like when Céline sings, "To all the little girls in the world, never change," which is such a classic Céline triumphal anthem. She sings it because she's from Quebec and knows what somebody like the characters in Mommy are going through in life.
What her music is supposed to do isn't supposed to be an index of whether she's aware of cultural unrest—surely she's aware of it, she's from rural Canada, so she knows what it's like—so she presents this music to functionally be an oasis. After watching that scene in Mommy, what I wanted to do with the songs on Care is capture both the inside and outside of the oasis on a song, taking the three minutes on either side of this song in Mommy and making it into a song.
Air France – "No Excuses"
This is just a really inspiring song for me. It always come up around the end of summer for me. It's so joyous and then because of the lyrics and the sample they use, it's got this wistful melancholy to it. It literally feels to me like an adult version of "Roar" by Katy Perry. When I hear him sing "no excuses," I feel like I could be in the Olympics.
Sade – "By Your Side"
This is actually the only song that should ever be played at weddings. It's the most truly romantic song ever. If someone sang that song to me, I'd be like, "Okay, I'm no longer insecure about our love at all." A lot of it comes from Sade and her confidence with which she sings these really powerful love words. It's an extremely direct song, there's no metaphors. I love that the sentiment isn't "I will never leave your side," but more "You think I'll leave your side? You should know me better than that." It shows the person that their insecurities are in themselves and not in her. She doesn't even for a moment give credence to the idea that she's not going to be there forever.
Frankie Cosmos - "Embody"
Lyrically, this is the closest thing to a prayer to me. She sings, "Someday in bravery, I'll embody all the grace and lightness," and then she gives examples of what she means: traveling the world on tour seeing her friends, becoming friends with their friends, seeing a picture of her friend and calling her a light beam. They're just very simple and beautiful appreciations of life here on earth, and then there's this prayer bookending everything. She's a genius.
Popcaan – "Where We Come From"
This is another very prayerful song in my mind. The production is so bubbly and it's such a cool contemporary version of like a Bruce Hornsby song. And especially the final 40 seconds or so—the sound design on the outro is so fucking dope. His flow is so immediate and gripping, and if you dig into the lyrics, he's really quite a deep guy. He says, "Real thugs never worry 'bout pagans," which is so great.
Savage Garden – "I Knew I Loved You"
This is just an absolutely adorable, almost embarrassingly earnest love song sung by a white R&B legend. It's literally the paradigm for Krell. He sings, "I think I found my way home," and I think that's so beautiful. I've been listening to Savage Garden basically since I was a little boy. I've been digging more into their music over the last two years and really appreciating the artistry and the boldness of it.
David Mahler - "Only Music Can Save Me Now (Except)"
I think David Mahler is a really interesting guy who doesn't get enough recognition in terms of the legacy of American practical experimental minimalist music. We tend to think of people like Steve Reich and Michael Nyman, and then like four or five years ago I got into David Mahler's work.
"Only Music Can Save Me Now" is such an amazing title. You expect such a grand song to come out of it, and then when you put it on, it's literally like the cheesiest American pop-rock stuff. It's G C D / G C D / G C D over a very deliberate 4/4 rhythm, but there's something about it that I think is so incredibly experimental. It pushes against all the anticipations and assumptions about what is going to happen, and it just drives this beeline straight to whatever the saving power is in American music.
When I listen to this song I hear so much of what I love in R&B and pop-punk groups like New Found Glory. It's all distilled here. I listened to this song like every day for a full year and then I thought I would sample it. And that's how where "I Was Terrible" emerged, which uses "Only Music Can Save Me Now" as its backbone. I tried to really reflect all of those angles, like the Sixteen Candles vibes, the R&B vibes, the pop-punk vibes.
James Ferraro – "Adventures in Green Foot Printing"
James just gets something about contemporary culture and utopia/dystopia dialectics that I appreciate. The way he uses kitsch and positivity to dive into a really profound experience of music is completely singular. He's a good friend of mine and I genuinely think he's one of the most important artists in any medium working right now.
Care is out now via Weird World/Domino.
Renato Pagnani is on Twitter.