When Tom Krell sings, the room is silent. It’s a phenomenon I experienced in person at his gig at XOYO earlier this year: in a crush of bodies, with all that withheld potential energy, there’s a suspension of breath as Tom, or How To Dress Well, leaves his microphone behind and lets his voice burst out unamplified.
It’s a moment that encapsulates everything that I love about the Brooklyn-based artist’s second album, ‘Total Loss’; it enthrals you and embarrasses you, and you almost laugh – that horrible, inappropriate-but-compulsive kind of laughter. It’s the kind of laughter where nothing is actually funny; you just feel uncomfortable, and your body doesn’t want to give your mind time to think about why. Like all the best innovations, ‘Total Loss’ sits on this brink, somewhere between amazement and awkwardness, startling you with its newness but also making you lean in a little closer, intrigued. When Tom Krell sings, you hang on his every word.
With a forceful sadness that knocks the wind right out of you, the album mirrors Krell’s heart-rending live performance with its minimalist set-up and its maximalist delivery – in the opening bars, a voice floats out of the ether with close-to-the-bone lyrics like “You were there for me when I was in trouble” and “Dear Mama, did you tell me everything was gonna be all right?” This is the tone of ‘Total Loss’: as a listener there’s a constant sense of craning forward and reeling back, both drawn in by the unwavering bravery of the album’s content and the openness of its sonic landscape, and simultaneously feeling the sharp sting of his truthful lyrics. Krell told Dummy in our Cover Up feature with him last month, “I don’t have any interest in making something that’s primarily agreeable: nice to listen to and then having it do the emotional work subtly in the background. I much prefer the idea of the work of art as primarily an engine for spiritual engagement, change, whatever – and then if it happens to also be agreeable then that’s really cool.” On ‘Total Loss’, How To Dress Well emotes in the strongest sense of the word, forcing his audience to engage with his laid-bare vocals in a way that wasn’t so confrontational on his debut, ‘Love Remains’ – for me, that’s primarily what made this record both so much more challenging and so much more relatable.
What’s also more palpable here than ever before are the producer’s R&B leanings; with handclaps and soulful twinges, ‘Total Loss’ is brilliantly entrenched in its pop culture heritage, with figures like Janet Jackson and R Kelly – both pioneers of making sadness something you can dance to – looming large over its sound. Krell literally breathes his influences on this record, in those throat-catches of intensity and those forceful exhalations that skirt around the throbbing beat in Running Back. He makes you feel his tracks in your whole body, from the finger-clicks in & It Was U to the stomach-wrenching swarm of emotion that swells with the strings in World I Need You, Won’t Be Without You. There are endless emotional responses you can have to this record, in its insightful richness, but there also endless ways you can move to it.
‘Total Loss’ is total because it’s all-encompassing – the human spectrum of emotion is bafflingly huge, and this record is one that begins to tap into that vastness, and all the differences and contradictions that it possesses. By re-working tracks within the body of the album itself, taking the album opener When I Was in Trouble and warping it into an otherworldly framework for the altogether more danceable Struggle, and reprising World I Need You… in Talking To You, Krell shows off not only the many strings to his bow as an artist, but the many faces of human emotion. What makes this album so alive is the way that its songs, like feelings, exist and express themselves in different forms, temperamental and always overwhelming.
It comes back to that a capella performance; a grown man unafraid to be vulnerable and at once commanding, unafraid to confront your discomfort and push through it, to make you forget yourself with his transcendant vocals. It comes back to a silent, enraptured audience, and a voice that speaks to each and every one of them.
Graphic design courtesy of Luke Corpe.