“I love to fly. It’s just you alone. You’ve peace and quiet, nothing around you but clear blue sky. No one to hassle you. No one to tell you where to go or what to do. The only bad part about flying is having to come back down to the fucking world.” Those words, spoken by a homeless teenager and excerpted from the 1984 documentary Streetwise, introduce a track on How To Dress Well’s sophomore album Total Loss. A big splash follows the clip, presumably the sound of a human body hitting the ocean. The boy (who in the film goes by the name “Rat”) is, of course, here meant to represent a foul-mouthed Icarus. His notion of freedom is characterized by a disdain for the world (and the worldly) and a reverence for upward emancipation, for transcendence, for the sublime. And like Icarus, his hubris leads to his (implied) watery demise. These ideas are key to understanding and, depending on the listener, appreciating How To Dress Well’s music.
How To Dress Well is the stage name of Tom Krell, a singer-songwriter by trade who also happens to be a student of philosophy, particularly that of the 18th century German Immanuel Kant. Krell’s art is as shaped by Kantian doctrine as it is by turn-of-the-1990s R&B. The latter is his mode; the former inspires his themes and approach. A first-rate integrator, Krell translates Big Ideas into the very structures of his songs. It’s impossible to discuss his music apart from its philosophic underpinnings.
I don’t know of another artist, apart from a classical composer, who can so thoroughly transform a specific system of thought into sound without relegating the impossible job to his lyrics. He makes you hear and feel what a philosophy implies, good or bad, without having to wake up early for class. The squawking distortion of How To Dress Well’s debut Love Remains communicates the messiness of Kantian sense perception. Total Loss, with its crystalline beauty, counters as a peek into Kant’s perfect noumenal world. If you think this seems too cerebral for an album review, you’d be right. Happily, you don’t need a PhD to enjoy How To Dress Well (see “& It Was U”), which is a huge achievement in and of itself.
Tom Krell is unique in another, albeit superficial, way. He is a white man who makes sophisticated (i.e., uncommercial) R&B of the sort that regularly places him in the company of Frank Ocean and The Weeknd. But where Frank Ocean is a worldly chronicler of particulars and The Weeknd a participant in nihilistic orgies, Krell is a sentimentalist through and through. Here is a typical, direct quote from his blog:
love is a miracle. like, as far as i can tell, it almost shouldn’t be possible, but it transpires sort of in spite of the the world […] this will to love can give us the most beautiful stability and a sense of truly living, but can also lead us into totally spiritually rending compromises, split between worlds.
I’m not sure what this means. I’m even less sure it makes sense to anyone apart from Tom Krell himself. Still, the passage’s sincerity is more important than its substance. It’s stubbornly optimistic despite the universal frustration of its premise. For Krell, sentimentality is more than the mawkish words found in a Hallmark card; it’s a rebuke to cynicism and irony, those ever-pervasive cultural twins.
If “love is a miracle,” then it is likewise otherworldly. Total Loss, too, is ethereal in nature, often coming closer to Gregorian chant than R. Kelly. Krell’s melodies’ structures remain unmistakably tied to R&B genre trappings, but the album’s lush production and string-laden instrumentation (which naturally follows the orchestral Just Once EP) along with the impenetrable reverb applied to his voice make Total Loss more a collection of mini-symphonies than traditional slow jams. These songs swell and subside and often reach seemingly inevitable, glorious climaxes in the model of Love Remain’s “Decisions.” “Struggle,” an album highlight, represents the best of this form with its complex percussive elements and soaring chorus. The masterful “Talking to You” finds Krell singing a solo-duet between his preferred falsetto and his sorely underused mid-range. Even more straightforward numbers like “Cold Nites” and “Running Back” tend to drift up into the ether. Only the excellent single “& It Was U” is meant for a dancing body rather than an uplifted spirit. Consequently, it sounds jarringly out of place here.
Talking to Pitchfork about his music, Tom Krell reveals, in a typically Kantian manner, what’s both wonderful and frustrating about his new album:
I’m striving for a balance between wordless singing and signifying lyrical lyrics. The goal for me, lyrically, is to trust that the affect is going to be carried in the corporeal motions of sound. The worst thing is when you hear a singer with a beautiful voice singing banal ass shit.
Total Loss is a striking expression of hope and devotion in the face of, well, a whole lotta loss (the album’s two final tracks are particularly heartbreaking). How To Dress Well’s “affect” is indeed regularly “carried in the corporeal motions of sound.” Still, Total Loss can be more aesthetically interesting than genuinely moving and it’s almost always too cluttered with floating abstractions. Say what you will about “banal ass shit.” But that “shit” tends to relate to the world in which we actually live. I’d love to hear what kind of music Tom Krell would make back here on Earth. [B]