How To Dress Well, ‘Total Loss’ – Album Review
The fundamentals of Tom Krell’s wisp-voiced How to Dress Well project were (un)defined from the get-go. By taking the melodies and beats of traditional R&B and slathering on the reverb, he tapped into a musical subconscious where forgotten K-Ci & JoJo and Mariah Carey tracks bubbled up from past epochs (or a least the early ’90s), shedding their fidelity on their way to the surface.
On his debut, ‘Love Remains,’ he played with shadow versions of mainstream pop, but on ‘Total Loss,’ he’s less interested in critique and more wholly invested in making some really catchy songs. Yet, in what may seem like irony to some, this new accessibility was born of a series of personal tragedies that could have left a different sort of artist hopelessly deflated.
Before recording the album, Krell lost his best friend and his uncle in a short period of time. He was left utterly destroyed, but instead of burying his songs in further layers of dust and decay, he found in his sadness even more of a reason to reach out and connect.
Krell views the language of pop as a universal one, and throughout the album, he attacks his hooks like they might actually wind up on Top 40 radio. Opener ‘When I Was In Trouble’ finds Krell’s voice trembling as he delivers the lines, “Dear Mama, did you try to tell me everything was going to be safe?” There’s no veil here to lift, and no ironic distance. Conversely, the piano-driven ‘Cold Nights’ is a miracle of melody, with Krell’s falsetto tumbling over the notes like a waterfall. The words aren’t clear, but it’s an immediate earworm nonetheless.
That the style of music Krell uses to examine his life is pop and R&B, or that that he happens to be a gangly philosophy student, no longer seems a pertinent part of the HTDW narrative. ‘Total Loss’ an album about Krell dealing with his demons in the only way he knows how. The medium is certainly not the message.
While much of ‘Total Loss’ is meant to be taken seriously, Krell’s moments of levity can be surprisingly fun. ‘& It Was U’ is an absolute pop stunner whose a cappella beginnings fall into an addictively catchy groove with a pounding four-on-the-floor beat. It’s as energetic a track as ‘Love Remains’ outlier ‘Walking This Dumb,’ but it contains none of the blown-speaker aggression. As unlikely as it sounds, it’s a HTDW track you could actually dance to.
Another highlight is early single ‘Ocean Floor for Everything,’ whose synth line is reminiscent of a bit of a 64-bit video game MIDI soundtrack. It’s a tone that’s immediately nostalgic and strangely grand in its own way. As Krell makes the heartrending observation, ‘We never really plan for the worst of things do we?’ it truly sounds like he’s simultaneously reached some form of acceptance.
Perhaps the most telling moment on the album, though, comes before ‘Say My Name Or Say Whatever,’ with a child’s voice sampled from the 1984 documentary ‘Streetwise.’ “The only bad part about flying is having to come back down to the f–––ing world,” he says. As this beautiful record comes to an end you may be thinking the exact same thing.