A standard trope from R&B —either on record or in concert— is the tribute to the fallen; in which the artist, like that Oscar ceremony montage of those who died over the past year, offers tributes to those lost saints of urban music; usually beginning with Biggie, 2Pac, Left-Eye, Aaliyah et al. Sometimes, these acts of public grieving can be moving, most often they take sentiments profound and turn them pro forma.
On his second album, Cologne-based one-man-band How to Dress Well —AKA Chicago-born 27-year-old Tom Krell— runs through his own list of lost souls on "Set it Right," and manages to make the cliché seem personal; wearing his grief with a simplicity and sincerity that stands opposed to both the insincere theatricality of R&B and the willful obtuseness of indie music. With a simple "I miss ya," Krell etches his mourning into a litany of names whose seeming endlessness —Eileen, Dan Dan, Aunt Sam, Jamie, Mama, Dad, Andrew, Dawn, Grandma, Francie, Danny, Aunt Faith, Will, Jamie— begins to pile up into an unbelievable catalog of loss. Upon hearing it, the title of Total Loss no longer seems like some extreme-sports slogan, but a resignation unto overwhelming grief.
This is effectively what How to Dress Well does. Operating in an ambient netherworld that draws influence from both R&B and indie music, Krell completely subverts the philosophies of both. Indie musicians drawing from club-pop are usually considered to be working with at least some degree of irony, but How to Dress Well possesses not a single drop. He makes music that is intensely sincere and overwhelmingly emotional, yet at times feels barely there; his tears raining down from drifting clouds of cottony sound.
Krell is often compared to abstract beatmakers and witch-house producers, but there's never the sense that this is a different iteration of club music, that dudes in baseball caps will nod their head to Krell's wicked bottom-end. At times, there's no bottom-end; just a high and airy falsetto swimming through endless waves of echo, with washed-out samples and piano and violin dotted throughout. It's music that is really sad and really beautiful, but the world hasn't quite twigged to just how sad and beautiful it is.
A Longplaying mourning
Total Loss should change that. It's hard to deny its sadness and beauty —from the moment Krell cries "Dear mama, didn't you try to tell me everything was gonna be safe? Dear mama, didn't you tell me everything was going to be alright?" on opener "When I Was In Trouble"— and it's becoming harder to deny the force of Krell's singular sound, and depths of his talent. If anyone was still believing that he was just the first hipster to hijack New Jack Swing and run it through an Ariel Pink filter, then Total Loss is a portrait of grief doubling as statement of greatness.
"We never really plan for the worst of things do we?" Krell carols, on "Ocean Floor for Everything," whose angelic vocal swells and hymnal reverie remind of Julianna Barwick. Total Loss is about dealing with the worst of things; sometimes reveling in the pain, sometimes finding instances of transcendence, or even joy.
The uplift of "Say My Name or Say Whatever" (which begins with a sample from, I believe, David Gordon Green's amazing debut film George Washington) sails its repetitious two-note piano loop through dark squalls towards clear skies; "& It Was U" flirts with club-banger status as it offers a pledge of unyielding devotion (to, it seems, those grieving alongside Krell); and the epic, ecstatic "How Many" turns its lament for lives lost into a brilliant, glittering symphony built by countless digital filters; Krell's voice crying through a diamond sea of delay, static, and rough-edged noise.
Taken as a whole —and its 42 minutes definitely feel like a whole work— Total Loss can be an almost overwhelming listen; its flooding waves of grief, lack of rhythmic constancy, and absence of familiar musical signposts leaving a listening unmoored, floating in an ambient world in which death is a central motif. Which is, of course, the album's ultimate recommendation: when was the last time listening to music left you feeling utterly, emotionally overwhelmed?
Record Label: Acéphale
Release Date: September 18, 2012