A spoken-word excerpt from a 1980s documentary about teenage homelessness, the sound of a body splashing into the ocean, several utterly heart-breaking eulogies to lost loved ones, Tom Krell’s second album under the guise of How To Dress Well, Total Loss, made purveyors of miserablist R&B Drake and The Weeknd resemble the cast of Glee.
Despite playing to a crowd of no more than 100 people at Liverpool’s LEAF on Bold Street on the last date of his brief UK tour, and with a self-confessed hangover to boot, the Brooklyn native is keen to replicate the soul-baring nature of the record in all its devastating glory. The 27-year-old performs opener “Cold Nites,” [LISTEN] the “Justin Timberlake on three Ambien” lead single which focuses on the struggle to deal with the aftermath of a broken-down long-distance relationship, as if his life depends on it:
Cold nites and harder days
Bed to lie down, lay away
Have a heart facing foreign places
Tired of seeing love, tired of waiting
Krell’s natural intensity is heightened even further due to the array of stunning surreal visuals projected behind his dual microphone/violinist/laptop setup. Ranging from a still shot of a mundane office worker to a disturbing short film which appears to take its cue from the discovery of Laura Palmer’s corpse in Twin Peaks, the whole multi-media element reaches its zenith with the gut-wrenching finale of “Set it Right,” a howling wall-of-noise which sees Krell reeling off a list of all the people’s he’s lost against a slow-motion backdrop of two bodies sinking into the sea.
It’s not the only trick up his sleeve. An a cappella rendition of “Blue,” a tribute to his “messed-up” brother that stuns the crowd into absolute silence, proves Krell is just as compelling when he strips away all the performance art. While on “Talking To You,” [LISTEN] his anguished falsetto tones duet with his own midrange croon on an avant-garde and slightly schizophrenic message to a departed lover who has left him incapable of functioning on a day-to-day basis:
Don’t know what I want, Don’t know what I need
Don’t know who I am, Don’t know who I’ll be
A simple shame indeed and in my sound track
But it’s a shame that gives my days the shame of having pride
Cast a pall all over my days since you passed away
Choose to say you left me in a state I can’t escape
Perhaps aware that all the overwhelming misery may be a bit much for a Monday night, Krell occasionally lightens the mood, whether it’s throwing a nod to Ashanti’s “Foolish” on the finger-clicking New Jack Swing of “Running Back,” or almost inspiring the crowd to bust a few moves with “& It Was U,” [LISTEN] an effortlessly slick slice of electro-funk which ditches the usual tortured soul angle and instead politely informs the ex who said his “love was too complex” that he’ll still be around should they change their mind:
You don’t have to call me
My love will be there for you
And you don’t have to worry
Cause our love will be there for you, girl
Whenever you will call me
But of course, it’s the more emotionally-raw material that will leave the longest lasting impression from a set which only confirmed How To Dress Well’s status as the hipster R&B scene’s most tormented and yet equally mesmerising talent.