How to Dress Well helmsman Tom Krell built his following on contorting the familiar. On his debut LP Love Remains, Krell took the sounds of FM-bred R&B smooth jams and twisted them into his own surreal shapes, creating an effect akin to dozing off on a Greyhound bus to the faint lull of the driver’s radio station. You never knew you even liked smooth R&B until you heard it that way. “My music may reference pop, but it will never be populist,” he said recently. “Part of populist music is that the form has to be completely un-strange, it has to completely recognizable without any one twinge of strangeness. But, to me, the way loss registers in the world is as strangeness, as something that you can’t quite process.”
Love Remains rode this to warranted acclaim, but it left questions as to whether this was an M.O. that could be sustained over the course of multiple records — the very same questions that oft associated brooders The xx found themselves facing with their recent sophomore LP. On Total Loss, Krell is far more confrontational and less sedated in the face of his woes, upping the sentimental weight in the process, just as the difference between the album titles would suggest.
Krell peels back the curtain that so heavily smothered Love Remains, letting his own voice carry more of the load. The over-the-top effects are toned down so that sometimes Krell’s lyrics are even discernible. It’s a less unified effort than its predecessor because of this, but more importantly, Krell treads new grounds. “& It Was U” is his boldest vocal display to date, a nearly a capella cut on which he aims his undistorted falsetto point blank: “You don’t have to worry/ My love will be there for you.” The big surprise, though, is the instrumental “World I Need You, Won’t Be Without You”, a violin ensemble arrangement similar to DeVotchKa’s “How It Ends” that’s without a hint of R&B or any other attributes of the established How to Dress Well sound.
Krell said that Total Loss is to mourning as what Love Remains is to melancholy, and the album’s frequent stylistic jumps reflect this. Whereas melancholy can be a long-lasting or even comfortable constant, experiencing real loss is confusing, uneven, and anything but certain. This is a bus ride that Krell would rather you be awake for.
Essential Tracks: “Set It Right”, “World I Need You, Won’t Be Without You”