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Review: Total Loss – How to Dress Well

If there was ever an argument for making the jump from lo to hi-fidelity, it would be How to Dress Well – a.k.a. Tom Krell’s – debut, Love Remains.

Caught in the middle of 2010’s ubiquitous lo-fi ‘chillwave’ trend, the record was plagued by crackled reverb and blown out distortion. Its imperfections were its greatest attribute, but one can only get so much mileage from a lo-fi template.

As such, moving from one end of the fidelity spectrum to the other seems for Krell less a response to the change in musical current, and rather a decision made out of necessity. Indeed, both in terms of style and concept Total Loss dictates a production approach that is worlds away from bedroom recordings on a laptop.

How to Dress Well’s sound is indebted to late 80’s R&B – a genre known for its glossy aesthetic and crisp beats. Take the single Cold Nites for instance, with its gorgeous piano samples, delicate falsetto, and sharp hi-hats; or the finger snaps and Michael Jackson-esque stomp of & It was U: all core elements within the genre; all elements that fail to work in a lo-fi context.

Equally important to the record is its high concept. During the writing process Krell experienced the breakdown of a relationship as well as the death of a family member. Naturally, Total Loss is unapologetically elegiac: “dear mama, didn’t you try to tell me everything was gonna be right?” he quivers over a mournful piano on the opening track When I Was In Trouble. No longer suffocating under distortion, this newfound clarity in Krell’s voice means he is now able to convey a strong narrative, albeit a melancholic one.

At times Total Loss bears similarities to D’Eon’s recent debut LP – another high-concept, R&B-influenced record. However, where How to Dress Well triumphs over his counterpart is in execution. At half the length of LP, the fact that Krell is able to streamline his work without sacrificing concept shows an understanding of the listening process.

You can see it in the way that musical reprises bookend Sides A and B of the record. Everything is meticulously structured, but when appropriated on Side B these motifs become less defeatist, and possibly point towards a hope out of loss. This is particularly the case on standout track Talking To You, which takes the heartbreaking strings of earlier interlude World I Need You, Won’t Be Without You (Proem) and pairs them with a gospel falsetto for an emotive climax. Catharsis is a major theme of the record, and Krell makes this a shared experience.

Moments like these prove that Krell’s musical and conceptual visions are finally intersecting, and therein lies How To Dress Well’s true victory: out of Total Loss, Krell has created a deeply affecting, fully-realised record that transcends mere fads.

Watch: How to Dress Well – Cold Nites


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Hayden East

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September 2021
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