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How To Dress Well How To Dress WellTotal Loss

8.4 / 10

There weren't many of us, but nobody left the room untouched (though there were a few who left early, without understanding anything – it happens, sometimes). It was at the SónarComplex stage at Sónar 2011, and Tom Krell was headlining the Tri Angle showcase in a way nobody had expected: with all the tracks pre-recorded and no support on stage (not to mention the band, which was inexistent), with just one microphone and a set of lungs like Michael Phelps. Even the music wasn't very important: Krell wanted to vindicate himself as a singer, as voice in its pure state, and his concert was a display of vocal skills, of careful nuance, of a virtuosity you can only find in very few musical areas, such as modern R&B, classic soul and jazz. It shouldn't have come as a surprise: as a teen, Krell wanted to be Justin Timberlake and the first album by How To Dress Well reflected that - meticulous and modestly made R&B according to the logic of the bedroom producer. His beats weren't as sparkling as, say, Timbaland's, and his voice sounded asexual and ghostly, but the references were clear. Krell wasn't one to go to bed while Boards Of Canada are playing in the background, but Mariah Carey.

Two years after “Love Remains” (originally released in 2010 on NY label Lefse; months later, in 2011, in Europe, on Tri Angle), Tom Krell is back. That is, if we don't count the orchestral sidestep of “Just Once EP” (Love Letters Ink, 2011), on which the voice had already grown stronger, and which featured a track that is now the centrepiece on “Total Loss”, an explicitly titled album about the death of friends and the extinction of love. The record is scattered with symbolism (the pink sky, which is sunset, the prelude to darkness; or the head sculpture lying on its back on the album sleeve, which transmits the idea of decline; even song titles like “When I Was In Trouble”, the album opener) warning us of an especially fragile, vulnerable Tom Krell who's presenting himself without any protection. He doesn't even try to cover the songs in mystery, and from the hypnagogic mists of Avalon of “Love Remains” (which is a title that displays hope; in the end, there's always love), from those soft whirlwinds of cotton-wool electronica, HTDW has gone on to using the instrumentation as isolated and brief support for the melodies and his sharp falsettos. The bedroom producer has given way to the golden voice; now Tom Krell sings, he sings freely, and his register goes from Prince ( “& It Was U”) to Boyz II Men.

The context has changed a lot as well. When “Love Remains” came out, there wasn't yet an open debate within the R&B community indicating a search for new ways. It was a static genre, with Brandy and Pharrell Williams still as its references. In 2011, however, Frank Ocean and The Weeknd started to break down the aesthetic and social barriers, R&B put on a nice new dress of different subject matter, other sounds, fresh attitudes, and a new audience. From that tiny indie revolution, Tom Krell emerged as a pioneer, as someone who can now claim his privileged spot with his head held high. The heartbroken man - who goes beyond the stories of conquests, champagne and condoms, who suffers in silence - who's hurting from love and is scared to be alone: HTDW perfectly incarnates the archetype, and he expertly develops it parallel to his sound. He has made another intimate album, a record for lost souls locked inside their room, afraid to face the pain of the outside world. There are fewer elaborate rhythms than before, but there are more elegant strings ( “World I Need You, Won’t Be Without You (Proem)”) drawing a white satin midnight. There is phantasmagoria, but without the opacity of old ( “Struggle” sounds like a celestial ascension), and there's vocal virtuosity: Krell reaches high registers that are hard to reach for the average voice ( “Talking To You”), and he keeps the high notes with the skill of a castrato, like a Farinelli of R&B (in comparison, The Weeknd's Abel Tesfaye's register is more mezzo soprano, without the bright peaks).

The first impression of “Total Loss” is that there's less mystery in comparison to “Love Remains”, less complex production, and he didn't use the electronic textures to the fullest (it all sounds warm and calm, without any ripples). But as the record plays on, the songs shine with a faint halo of beauty, which becomes stronger as you get used to their sincerity, and the quiet magnificence of the whole is devastating (as technically complex moments like “Say My Name Or Say Whatever” are, where his angelical voice floats over minimalistic notes, something like a unique meeting between R. Kelly and Steve Reich). Moreover, from the apparently prosaic construction emerges a poeticism aimed at those who are truly lost and longing for a way out of the labyrinth. Those people, after losing fear, look at their inner self, to really examine their flaws, fears, and misery. That's what Krell does with himself, and that's what Krell does for the rest of us.

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