Though his pioneering cut-n’-paste compositions found many of their early enthusiasts among ravers and trip-hoppers, DJ Shadow never thought of himself as making electronic music: Wherever records stores saw fit to shelve his work, his heart remained with hip-hop. And when he had it his way, his CDs did too: It’s rumored that Shadow would take time out of routine crate-digging missions to re-shelve copies of Endtroducing… among the likes of De La Soul and Dr. Dre, where he felt they properly belonged. I can imagine Tom Krell, the singer/producer who records as How to Dress Well, taking similar initiative with Love Remains. It’s electronic as a matter of methodology (and ipso facto of genre), but its essence is R&B.
On “Endless Rain” and “Mr. By & By,” for example, the cavernous reverb, dirty low-end, and minimal instrumentation all signify Krell’s interest in making Difficult Experimental Music, but the stuttering beats and especially the keening, multi-tracked harmonies, resemble nothing more than ‘80s new jack swing in the vein of New Edition and Ready for the World. Slickness, smoothness, and other adjectives connotating an expensive kind of sexiness have been important to radio R&B’s aesthetic since, at least, Mariah, so it’s intriguing to listen as Krell reconstructs the genre on his shoestring budget. His home-recorded basslines aren’t nimble or funky; instead they bloom out of the speakers in a wash of chest-rattling thunder. He’s more careful with his beats, but even their precise hits carry a grimy density. The live-recorded “Walking with the Dumb” is doo-wop with a sledgehammer, while “Date of Birth” fits its ascendant vocal melody over a suffocating track.
What ties Love Remains together, and guides the listener through the record’s most dreary and obtuse passages, is Krell’s singing. His piercing falsetto is just the instrument to push through his oppressive arrangements, and though his lyrics are frequently indecipherable, the rare moments in which he muscles a hook through all the cloudy atmospheric stuff never fail to be memorable: The refrain of “I was hoping for the rain/I was hoping for you” on “My Body” is the type of thing that gets indelibly stamped into your brain on one listen. One of Krell’s favorite tricks is to layer his voice against itself, conjuring up a phantasmal backing group to buttress his fragile singing; you’d never mistake How to Dress Well for Boyz II Men, but the harmonies on songs like “Ready for the World” are impressive nonetheless.
Despite its conceptual underpinnings, Love Remains never sounds overburdened by theory, which is a real danger for Krell, a guy whose day job involves translating books on Kantian philosophy. If anything, it suffers from the opposite problem, of having too much heart and not enough artifice: “Lover’s Start” is pretty but sounds unfinished; “You Hold the Water” is a great mood-setter for the record but never comes together as a song. Then again, this could well be part of Krell’s shtick, since his full-bodied songs sound all the more majestic when they break out of those moody surroundings.
Nowhere does that trick work better than on “Decisions,” a momentous highlight that sounds like gospel music shrouded in static and picked up on a busted radio. For a record that dwells on suicide and rainy days, it’s a defiantly hopeful number that has Krell finally remembering that his struggles don’t go on forever: “Goodbye, we made it/Don’t forget to check your cellphone/No mistaking/Don’t forget about your real home”—and from there it’s just wordless harmonies growing higher in number and in pitch, like Krell was trying to pull himself up to heaven with his own voice. It’s one of the many stunning moments where Love Remains effectively positions itself in the space between the communal and the solitary, the familiar and the brazenly novel, the super-sensible and the supa dupa fly.