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How To Dress Well, ‘Total Loss’ (Acephale/Weird World)

How to Dress Well / Photo by Jesse Lirola
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: September 18, 2012
Label: Acephale/Weird World

1. I interviewed Tom Krell, he of shadowy bedroom-R&B project How to Dress Well, in early 2010, shortly after he began posting a series of free EPs online. It was one of those interviews that swiftly became a therapy session: I remember him asking me something to the effect of, What should I do? He was in Cologne at the time, far from whatever blog- and Brooklyn-centric groundswell of support was gathering for his brief, pretty, faintly melodic songs, and he didn’t know what to make of it.

2. Despite all appearances of reticence and shyness on Krell’s newest, Total Loss — the watery piano and the barely heard lyrics and the voice that flickers in and out of view — How to Dress Well is an ambitious project with ambitious aims. When we spoke back then, Krell told me his greatest hope was that Kanye West would somehow see the interview and bring him “into the lab to do something a little bit more hi-fi.” I believed him.

3. In those early days, Krell referred to How to Dress Well as “we” — it’s just him — and he shied away from being photographed or otherwise pinned down. He’s since become a less anonymous presence: He plays shows now (I can confirm that he is a white man who wears shorts) and released a hard-copy LP, 2010’s dreamily noisy Love Remains.

4. Total Loss, out this week, is the project’s second proper full-length, and is the musical coming-out-of-the-shadows that HTDW’s 2010 tour was for Krell himself. Whereas his earlier music sounded like you were hearing it from a few blocks away, this time Krell’s voice and songwriting are front and center.

5. So now we know just how capable he is. “Set It Right,” for instance, takes a short, blunt vocal loop and Krell’s unselfconscious falsetto, and just stuns you with the inchoate emotion of it all. I have no idea what he’s talking about on the song, but it’s deeply moving anyway.

6. Krell is fanatical about the last two decades of R&B, and you can hear that stuff all over Total Loss: “Running Back,” for instance, is a close quote of Ashanti’s “Foolish.” He’s been doing this kind of thing from the beginning — covering Kanye’s “Welcome to Heartbreak,” sampling The-Dream, and otherwise appropriating bits of the music he likes best. But while the nostalgia and affection the technique evokes is effective, it also makes you wish that he’d own his own writing more. “Say My Name or Say Whatever” is deeply strange and pretty, like a cloud expressing regret: It’s attractive and accomplished in a way a denatured sample of Timbaland’s drums can never be.

7. It’s funny that there was a moment a couple years ago when it seemed like How to Dress Well and Frank Ocean and the Weeknd might be peers in a left-of-center R&B movement, primarily because all three were vaguely photography-averse, and kickstarted their careers exclusively on the Internet. In 2012, we now know that Ocean is the closest thing we’ll get in our time to Marvin Gaye; the Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye will be paid millions to release a proper major-label debut; and Tom Krell will be back in Brooklyn’s Glasslands in no time, wearing shorts to fend off the heat.

8. Ambition is a lovely thing, but delivering on it is much harder. The closer Krell gets to creating some platonically perfect R&B song, the further he gets from actually having written one. Total Loss is a beautiful album, all ambient longing and sadness and spectral pop, rising and falling without warning — no other artist gets more emotional effect out of leaving things not quite finished. But it still feels not quite finished.