Lo-Fi Epic R&B: How to Dress Well’s Total Loss

“While writing these songs I was trying to learn to lose in a meaningful way & to sustain loss as a source of creative energy.” – Tom Krell (aka How to Dress Well)

What do you get when you cross the downtempo and falsetto infused R&B of the Weeknd with the lo-fi baroque sensibilities of Perfume Genius and the haunting sparseness of the xx’s ambient-goth rock? How to Dress Well’s Total Loss. The past two years have seen the return and rise of a new wave of soul and R&B revivalists that turn away from the over-produced beats and rhythm of the studio for leaner and more nuanced lo-fi production values mixed with the electronic influence of early 90s ambient music (e.g., Aphex Twin and Autechre), see “Say My Name of Say Whatever” (not to be confused with a Destiny’s Child song), and contemporary dub-step (e.g., James Blake), see “Ocean Floor”. Blending elements from various sources, How To Dress Well contributes another fantastic offering to the realm of “chillwave” records, slotting somewhere in the intersection of Perfume Genius’ lo-fi expositional style, Frank(ie) Ocean’s deconstructed soul, and Gayngs‘ Emo-Indie-R&B. But, Total Loss adds an additional layer by interposing a pronounced (and intentional) starkness, at times employing only a simple drum machine and vocal arrangements, see “& It Was U” – a Pitchfork “Best New Track”, which I think works far better in the context of the album than as a standalone track, or incorporating a series of delicate instrumental interludes replete with violins (“World I Need You…”) evoking a chamber piece a la Kronos Quartet playing Sigur Ros, which actually happened, see here. Yes, I’m conscious of the fact that in this intro I’m name dropping quite a bit, however I feel as though this album is in discourse with all of these artists, whether consciously or not. (And, two other artists this album recalls are non other than Justin Vernon (especially on Bon Iver‘s Bon Iver) and the work of Steve Reich – he is everywhere in my mind these days.) I have mentioned in passing before that songs/records that evoke other artists resonate even more deeply with me because it adds the joy of those previous experiences filtered through a new perspective and/or sound. Total Loss is exactly this sort of genius amalgam of styles, at once inspiring you to dance to the simple yet infectious beats and scaling back to have you observe the beauty of the composition.

But, it also works on a deeply personal level. As evidenced by Tom Krell’s liner notes reprinted above, this record is very much about the songwriter’s experience with loss both on an existential and real level. Further in the notes, he discusses how the record was inspired both by those who’d passed and those he was “missing” who were still living. “Set It Right”, the album’s most powerful and moving track in my estimation, was written in memory of the passing of a friend that passed. But it also has a moment of epiphany with the songwriter musing on the many friends and family in his life that he “misses”, both living and dead. It reminds me a great deal of the Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize” from Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, a record also inspired by the passing of a friend with whom the band had lost contact. In both the Flaming Lips’ and How To Dress Well’s work, loss functions not as state of being or mourning but as a catalyst for remembrance and appreciation – recognizing the fragility of this existence and the need to share the importance and meaningfulness of other people in one’s life. Although clearly derived from introspective journeys, both albums are externally focused, looking outwards to commune and share with those who make the artists’ lives “liveable”. Earlier in the year, I wrote about an album inspired and fueled by the loss of the lead songwriter’s mother and the amazing bravery it takes to tackle such a deeply personal issue through one’s art, Lost in the Trees‘ A Church That Fits our Needs. How To Dress Well’s Total Loss follows in this mold: a staggeringly evocative and emotionally fraught collection of songs that operate with a disarmingly powerful tension through lyrical sparseness.

Although I could probably spend more words discussing this record, I would rather allow you to hear and “read” it with your own ears. In keeping with the theme of the record, I hope it triggers a renewed appreciation for those who surround you, physically, spiritually and emotionally, whether down the street, in your office, on the other side of the phone or video line, or in memoriam. Art has that unique ability and power to make us stop, see, and reflect on what this whole existence and experience is really about.

Without further ado, Listen to How To Dress Well’s Total Loss in its entirety here.

Also if you enjoy the sound or sentiment of the record, then perhaps you might also enjoy

as always,

a.a.

2 thoughts on “Lo-Fi Epic R&B: How to Dress Well’s Total Loss

  1. Oh I really want to stream this, going by your review. I don’t want to download Spotify though and am having trouble finding other streaming… is it kind of like Pretty Lights? I will keep looking.

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