Total Loss‘s cover art, a picture of a death mask-like sculpture of experimental singer-songwriter Tom Krell’s face, is strikingly absent of any morbidity, perhaps due in part to his serene expression and the misty, pink backdrop. And despite its title, his sophomore album under pseudonym How to Dress Well is rather celebratory, an assurance of undying devotion and life-affirming affection that’s remarkably free of conflict. “You were there for me when I was in trouble,” Krell sings on the opening track, “When I Was in Trouble”; it’s a lyric that shows up numerous times over the course of the album as Krell recounts how love dragged him back from the brink.
Romantic gratitude, however, isn’t Krell’s only obsession on Total Loss. Since his 2010 debut, Love Remains, the Brooklynite has focused on crafting a unique strain of indie electronica embellished with early-‘90s R&B. The result is a mix of slow funk percussion, broken-stereo fuzz, and man-child falsettos borrowed straight from the Justin Vernon school of vocalization. It’s a mosaic style that, at times, came across quite clumsy on How to Dress Well’s debut, which favored an artsy, lo-fi confluence of styles blatantly snatched from various modern soul-pop icons, including Justin Timberlake and D’Angelo. The more refined Total Loss is a much quirkier and distinct experiment, as Krell has become increasingly interested in exploring dark, spatial spaces rather than flaunting his obvious influences or soaking entire tracks in sound degrade filters.
“When I Was in Trouble,” a soft assemblage of organ, white noise, and windswept atmospherics, sets the tone for the album’s bare but beautiful and enigmatic soulfulness. Total Loss owes much of its mysterious appeal to cryptic, pulsing sounds that roil just below the surface, often hinting at something far greater going on closer at its core. For example, “Struggle”—which features only Krell’s harmonies, some synth drones, and a thumping beat—initially sounds rather stripped down, but there’s a myriad of particle effects, rhythmic throbs, and other hushed oscillations teeming underneath.
By focusing both on overt dynamics and dozens of quiet, underlying ripples, Krell has lent his work a subtle weightiness that becomes clear only after repeat listens. Indeed, in order to reveal the eerie splendor that hides behind its deceptive minimalism, Total Loss demands a devotion from its listeners that echoes Krell’s own commitment toward the nameless subject of his desires.