Okay, firstly, the weather appears to be on the turn, but in London we’ve just had one of the brightest, hottest weekends of the summer. Now, it may not matter to a lot of people – especially in our increasingly windowless, social-netfraping, Warcraft-'I-can-live-in-another-reality-as-a-Dwarf-lord'-world – but the environment in which we listen to different types of music seems to me to be pretty crucial. There’s music that’ll sit right during a sunny day, or late at night in a packed club. Strolling to the park this weekend to lay in the grass and ogle scantily dressed girls, but also compelled by the enigmatic rulers of DiS to listen to How To Dress Well’s new record, I desperately want to tell the album’s seemingly inconsolable creator, Tom Krell, to share a warm can of Tyskie with me and lighten the fuck up.
What possessed Weird World to release the avant-garde songwriter/producer’s second LP, Total Loss, at the end of summer? First track 'When I Was In Trouble' opens with what sounds like a downpour in the background, interspersed with rumbling thunder, while a look at some of the other track names lets you know what else you’re in for: 'Cold Nites'; 'Struggle'; 'Running Back'. This music – haunting minimalist electro-r&b – should be experienced in the dead of night, lights off, alone in the darkness. Its pale skin must never be touched by the warming, cheering fingers of sunshine. It must never see the light of day. I’ve learnt that the hard way.
Fortunately, it’s 3am right now on a Monday morning and I have to be up in four hours and I’m wondering if several of the things I did this weekend were good ideas. Krell’s fragile falsetto wavering over muffled percussion, spare melodies, and eerie samples, is oddly comforting in exactly the way that some of the most depressing music will comfort you when you’re wallowing.
I should concede that I might need more time with Total Loss (though iTunes tells me I’m on my twelfth listen), because thus far it seems incapable of competing with 2010’s Love Remains. That collection of heartbroken suicide letters was overwhelming in its tender bleakness, its devastating candour. Although austere r&b is the ‘in’ thing nowadays (see The Weeknd, Frank Ocean), Love Remains was unlike anything else around, a mystical distillation of broad influences and samples, a self-contained world – disturbing at times in its darkness, but astounding in its realness. I came back to it again and again, submitting each time before its wretched wasteland because whenever I stooped down to pick at the charred soil I found beneath it a fertility of emotion, endless fragments of ideas.
Total Loss isn’t weaker in any single sense, but I’m not sure it if it builds on its predecessor either. There’re the monstrous bass drums – one of the album’s bedrocks – and shattered snares, along with greater clarity to the keyboards, and the occasional use of real strings, notably on 'World I Need You, Won’t Be Without You', recalling the 2011 EP, Just Once. But it’d maybe be nice to see such an experimental artist deviate more from his admittedly unique sound.
Vacillating comparisons aside, there’s a delicacy, a deftness of touch throughout Total Loss that’s wondrous. Every syllable, every echo seems designed to convey a particular shade of feeling. Struggle is a highlight, opening with a distant, muttered vocal, before dramatic keys arrive along with tribal drums, all gathering towards a dub-stepping rave-y finale, as more and more layers of percussion rise. Then there’s the intensely pleasurable '& It Was U', Krell duetting with himself like a slightly psychotic diva plied with helium over nothing but drums; the playfulness of this song is a glimpse of redemption, and the album is peppered with them, if not overtaken by them. When we get to closer 'Ocean Floor For Everything', it sounds like the minutes just before sunrise; all is quiet and tremulous, but there’s expectation in the air, promise in the hints of first light. Perhaps Total Loss is as much about learning to let go as it is about giving way to absolute despair. Both are arguably prerequisites for moving on. They say the night is darkest just before dawn, right?
Knowing this (or, erm, suspecting it), doesn’t mean I’ll be listening to How To Dress Well in the park any time soon – I’ve learnt my lesson – but I never really understood the big draw with sunshine anyway. Besides, there’ll be thunderstorms this week, after which it’s a steady nosedive into a desolate winter that’ll freeze all hope until well into 2013 (especially if that fucker Romney wins). Total Loss gets my vote for soundtracking it.
8Darren Loucaides's Score