A little over a year ago, video emerged of Tom Krell doing a somber cover of R. Kelly’s “I Wish.” But this didn’t sound quite like anything we’d heard released under Krell’s How To Dress Well moniker before: his vocals raw and finally intelligible in the absence of any effects or a completely narcotized instrumental. And with all of the upbeat, spiritual skygazing from Kel’s original stripped away, there sat Krell’s cover: naked, sober, alone with a keyboard, and inconsolable.
“That song’s too real though,” Krell remarks in the final seconds of that recording. And with that one aside, the better-than-the-original cover suddenly revealed its function for Krell. His loss felt tangible. It seemed How To Dress Well would soon be heading somewhere far more desolate, and with reason.
And as its title suggests, Total Loss is an album about the struggle to cope with just that: the life-altering, crushingly irresolvable loss of a lover, a friend, a family member. Much of the blissfully disorienting fuzz from Love Remains is left behind. Whereas navigating that excellent debut necessitated you blindly grope about its smoky spaces, Total Loss is far more serious and intent. And it expects just as much of the listener.
Krell deals in very real, grave themes here, and bringing his clearer vocals further to the front of the mix reflects both his own solemnity and desperation to be heard fully. Opener “When I Was In Trouble” immediately establishes the record’s very heavy emotional baseline, as we find Krell addressing a now-absent crutch from the past. The first two lines — “You were there for me when I was in trouble/ You could understand, for me, that life was a struggle” — bear a long-standing sadness that goes mostly unspoken, carried by a spare, dark keyboard. (And the stabbing irony of the closing whistle’s likeness to the melodic contour of Ginuwine’s contented “Differences” shouldn’t be lost on long-time R&B fans.)
From here, the record searches wildly for resolution, and it’s this search that makes Total Loss so compelling (and allows it to be so wonderfully diverse). Krell captures and puts into song an array of feelings, and the resulting variety makes for a life experience packaged into 43 minutes of sound.
It’s a non-linear path from the rock-bottom opener to the everything’s-gonna-be-alright closer, “Ocean Floor For Everything.” But the songs and the associated feelings seem tied together quite sensibly. Consider how the viciousness and fevered delirium of “Cold Nites” runs into the unfounded optimism of the cinematic “Say My Name Or Say Whatever”; or how beautifully-layered, near-danceable promise “& It Was U” falls into the resolute, happy-cry worthy instrumental “World I Need You, Won’t Be Without You.”
No step of the struggle is left uncaptured, and what could never be packed into lyrics, Krell translates into wonderful, lush compositions. While much of his lyrical prowess remains buried on Love Remains (some of which is revealed in astonishingly gorgeous manner on last year’s orchestral Just Once EP), on Total Loss Krell seems to have found a more perfect balance of how to convey whatever affect: what to sing and what to communicate with instrument. The most striking example of such here is “Talking To You,” the breathtaking reprise of “World I Need You.” A distant, ethereal falsetto backs a more upfront, intelligible vocal track, and the effect is that of poetry harmonizing with raw emotion. And at the song’s midway point, huge swells of strings wash over the lo-fi instrumentation, with traces of Krell’s belted high notes getting lost in the waves. It’s one of the year’s best tracks, a brilliant, impossible flood of sentimentality that seems especially silly to attempt to pin down in writing.
Of course, some things haven’t changed since Love Remains. It’s still plenty fun to try and play “name that sample” here. Take the shower of too-appropriate, Gucci Mane-esque “burr!”s on the too-good “Cold Nites,” for example. And there’s the most obvious, a nod to Ashanti’s “Foolish” on “Running Back.”
Then there’s the unfairly buried sample of the some mid-2000s southern hip-hop beat on the back end of “Struggle.” In fact, any How To Dress Well track has at least a couple of those: sounds or melodies that you know you’ve heard before, but might never figure out. As before, it feels like Total Loss could just be a big trick, an intricate collage of R&B snippets from the past 15 or so years. It’s more likely that this is a deft re-appropriation of the most affecting bits of those (usually very commercial) songs into something completely non-commercial, unlikely, and beautiful.
Rather, the greatest comfort in not quite being able to pin down whatever sample — or, for that matter, the greatest comfort in trying to absorb Total Loss’s lyrics or just focusing on the frequently so-well-conceived production — is knowing that How To Dress Well is, at least, a project of honest passion. A day before the album’s release, Krell tweeted a short message of appreciation for the positive response he’d already received (“i love you.”) along with a picture of a long message, which included the line “it’s crazy to me that there are so many people out there ready to feel deeply through songs.” Krell knew releasing something like Total Loss was a risk for How To Dress Well. But it’s an album that ceaselessly overflows with love and a desire to reach out and relate, and it’s this that makes such a heavy album so accessible and so resoundingly good.