I'm on the phone with Tom Krell (better-known as indie-soul lothario How to Dress Well), and, in response to a question about the influence of top 40 balladry on his work, he's walking me through a playlist he's just made. On Krell's buzzy, sophomore release Total Loss (out this past Tuesday on Acephale Records) tracks radiate with both despair and cautious elation through a haze of mid-90's R&B. Krell rattles off a few obvious influences including Antony Hegarty, Robbie Basho, Babyface, Kate Bush and Whitney Houston...and then pauses.
"And...'2 Become 1' by The Spice Girls. It's such a gorgeous song," says Krell. "I learned so much about love by listening to that song in middle school."
Krell can be analytical, almost academic, about his influences and artistic explorations (he's completing a PhD in philosophy at DePaul in Chicago), but underneath that professorial air is someone who obsesses over the emotional shifts in Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope and British composer Michael Cashmore's The Snow Abides with equal attention.
Krell's quivering falsetto is usually paired with abstracted appropriations of top 40 production techniques, and he's subsequently been grouped in with "PBR&B" artists like The Weeknd, Frank Ocean, and dubstep song bird James Blake. Krell, however, stands apart from his peers thanks to his ability to seamlessly combine the avant-garde cues of contemporary classical music with the disorienting textures of sound collage artists and traditional pop theatrics.
"For me, a lot of my music is about my taste. Listening to music and writing music aren't different to me. I have to trust my musical intuitions, I have to trust I'm onto something," says Krell. "I want my music to be like a Gerhard Richter painting. There is this sense of photorealism on one hand, and total surreality on the other."
Appropriately, his 2010 debut album Love Remains played like R. Kelly on large doses of ketamine. Love showcased the devastating beauty of Krell's approach, which was seared by a personal battle with depression.
"That album focused on grinding, self-enclosed depression, and the production reflects that," says Krell. "Depression becomes this very monotonous rhythm, and when you think you're breaking out of it, those cries become muffled under that blanket of sadness. It's almost suffocating."
He recorded 2012's Total Loss in the span of 15 months, dividing his time between Brooklyn, Chicago, Nashville and London, in the midst of a personal tragedy. His best friend passed away unexpectedly after the release of Love Remains, and Krell says he realized the majority of the writing for Total Loss was a message to his friend's mother as much as it was a way to cope. The music, he says, was for "a grown woman suffering very deeply, not for niche listeners who understand the importance of noise sculptures."
But the album isn't mired in unrelenting depression, and the harsh production moves from his earlier work are mostly absent, replaced with swelling strings, patchworks of atmospheric clouds of synth, and Krell's untarnished voice front and center. Total Loss is an album focused on emotional renewal, not stagnation, and while parts are harrowing and chillingly ethereal, the quietly, uplifting dignity of the album's closing tracks feel hopeful and strong.
"I needed to make a sound that was more spacious, that still had moments of suffocating intensity, but also produced moments of clarity," Krell says. "With depression, you drown in it. With mourning, you dive in, come up to get a breath of air, and then go back into the darkness with a clarity of vision...I wanted to find a way to positivity without denying pain or denying loss."
Total Loss is out now.