Written during a ‘very unhappy and confused period’ which saw him lose his best friend and uncle, deal with the break-up of a relationship and battle with depression, Brooklyn producer Tom Krell’s second album under the guise of How To Dress Well is understandably hardly a barrel of laughs.
Indeed, the ghostly R&B of Total Loss is drenched in so much melancholy that it makes co-producer Rodaidh McDonald’s previous cohorts, eternal miserablists The xx, sound like they’ve escaped from High School Musical.
“Say My Name or Say Whatever” begins with a spoken excerpt from a homeless teenager (taken from 1984 documentary Streetwise) before an effect which resembles a body splashing into the sea leads into an off-kilter piano loop which is as eerie as it is hypnotic. “Set It Right” sees Krell devastatingly reel off a list of all the people he’s lost (“Daddy, I miss you”) in-between a tortured howling wall of noise. The anguished “Talking To You” is a slightly schizophrenic ballad which sees Krell’s achingly fragile falsetto tones duet with his own mid-range croon against a backdrop of skittering early Bjork-esque percussion.
The follow-up to 2010’s equally solemn Love Remains is therefore not exactly for the faint-hearted. But amidst the overwhelming, if undeniably captivating, sadness, there’s a pop sensibility which prove Krell’s claim that both Mariah Carey and Ukranian-Canadian experimental pianist Lubomyr Melynk inspired the album wasn’t just a snappy soundbite designed to make him appear even more intriguing.
The emphatic Timbaland-style beats and melodramatic piano hooks of “Cold Nites” echoes the early 00s R&B of Justin Timberlake, albeit if it had been given an ambien. “& It Was You” starts out as Off The Wall-era Jacko pastiche before slowly building into a surprisingly slinky slice of electro-funk, while The King of Pop’s influence is also all over the New Jack Swing balladry of “Running Back” with its breathy yelps and finger-clicking grooves. There’s even a neo-classical instrumental in the shape of “World I Need You, Won’t Be Without You (Proem),” whose gorgeous sweeping string arrangement wouldn’t sound out of place on Downton Abbey.
But ultimately, the aptly-titled Total Loss is defined by its heartbreak, a theme which Krell can convey just as devastatingly as Frank Ocean, The Weeknd and the mountain of other R&B chillwave acts currently swarming the hipster circle. It will be interesting to see what he comes up with should the next few years be hopefully less traumatic.