How To Dress Well – Total Loss
Because of this little thing we like to call the Internet, indie music no longer has to be regional. In the ‘90s, a lot of music could be identified by a regional sound. In an area like the American Northwest, for example, you could hear a cohesive sound and attitude among artists like Elliott Smith, Built to Spill, and Modest Mouse. These days, musicians can sit in their bedroom and attract millions of listeners without ever performing publicly.
We, as critics, have not yet figured out a productive way to categorize acts whose sole region has become the Internet. Labels like PBR&B, tumblr rap, and chillwave fail to draw up meaningful connections. These days, PBR&B is consistently said to contain three artists: The Weeknd, Frank Ocean, and How to Dress Well. They have little more than the Internet in common. One makes ambient versions of popular R&B with a touch of chopped and screwed indie rock and the next makes domestic, Stevie-Wonder-inspired social commentary. How to Dress Well makes neither.
The project’s first album, Love Remains, was originally placed in this new novelty genre because of a self-proclaimed love of ‘80s and ‘90s R&B on the part of Tom Krell, the man behind How to Dress Well. In the end, however, those of us who enjoyed the album were bound to realize that it didn’t really sound much like his references. The R&B of the ‘90s is often rhythmic, skeletal, and deliberate. The vocals can wrap around you like a snake. Most of all, it’s almost always sexy. Love Remains on the other hand, was swollen, meandering, and contemplative. It was not sexy. While it borrowed from the vocal phrasing of ‘90s R&B, its attitude sat squarely in a tradition of indie rock melancholy that stretches back to The Smiths in the early ‘80s. A close look at Love Remains will see inspiration from fellow indie bedroom projects like the Microphones, Brooklyn weirdos like Animal Collective, and most of all, ‘80s dream-pop like the Cocteau Twins.
Krell’s new album, Total Loss, works to break out of the mold of Love Remains. He has openly admitted to growing wary of “sadness and negativity”, looking to explore new, more complex emotions, a sentiment that has given birth to an album with a widely expanded ambition. He throws himself into each track individually, creating more intense, diverse music, with higher highs and lower lows. Often, this can mean plunging much deeper than before into the sounds and emotions of R&B. His ears seem to have turned towards R&B monoliths like R. Kelly and Prince. This means heightened tension and more structured arrangements. “Cold Nites” exhibits both of these elements, resulting in the hardest hitting slow jam Krell has yet to make. It’s obvious now that his signature wallow can be more than just a depressing gasp. It can be frightening, nervous, and even angry. His ambition, however, can get in the way of clarity. “Running Back” is an attempt at sensuality, but it’s muddled by clashing themes–rhythmic sexuality and contemplation are not easily mixed.
While some of his songs have become more than the simple, soul-aching sadness of his first release, the segments that resemble the erotic swing of Prince or the virtuoso thrust of R. Kelly do not similarly mimic their emotional influences. Instead, they seem to lend dynamics to the same central emotions that How To Dress Well has always dwelled upon. Krell’s feelings simply have a slower, more convoluted release.
At its center, then, the album strongly resembles How to Dress Well’s last. Fortunately, its center is neither the indie nor R&B influences that it so publicly wears on its sleeve. The electric storm clouds, harsh digital fuzz, ultra-lyrical string arrangements, and anguished rhythmic meandering all contribute to a unique and monumental depth of feeling, an indulgent, but empathetic emotion. The album’s best song, “Set it Right”, a shuddering eulogy to lost loved ones, can be categorized only by an overwhelming catharsis attributable to Tom Krell alone. Catharsis, after all, is one of the few places in which these two disparate genres can overlap and that is where Total Loss rests.