On his debut album, 2010’s Love Remains, Tom Krell certainly wasn’t your ordinary R&B star: a scrawny, dorky, bespectacled white dude blending bedroom-goth ambience with a ‘90s-era strand of quiet-storm soul, channeling sadness and heartbreak through a shivering falsetto. Arresting stuff—even if those burning emotions were somewhat muted, struggling for air under the mountains of reverb and ghostly echo, teetering on the verge of a catharsis that never arrived.
That moment of clarity comes two years later, toward the end of Total Loss’ mesmerizing closer, “Ocean Floor of Everything.” “But we never really plan for the worst of things, do we?” Krell asks, his naked voice quivering over a dreamy organ loop and flurries of static. “I have my place / I have my home / I have my future.” One track prior, over stark piano chords, Krell lists the names of 15 individuals he’s lost: “I miss ya,” he sings, over and over, seemingly on the verge of tears—moments before a quiet-loud avalanche of distortion interrupts the intervention. These emotions were implied on Love Remains if you listened patiently through the fog, absorbed through a kind of sonic osmosis. But from front-to-back, Total Loss is startlingly in focus.
Even though Total Loss was inspired by death, the album’s emotional spectrum is wide-ranging, with solemn meditations balanced out by blissful pop. Turns out, freed of that garish reverb, Krell is an absolutely gifted soul singer, drawing influence from ‘90s R&B-pop superstars like Mariah Carey, Aaliyah and Janet Jackson, modern indie-soul miners like Jamie Lidell and Justin Vernon, and, well, long-forgotten cheese-merchants like Color Me Badd. But for every excellent backward glance (the effervescent ”& It Was U”), there’s a modern curveball: “Cold Nites” suggests Bon Iver, as produced by Timabaland; “World I Need You, Won’t Be Without You” is a Sigur Ros-esque slow-motion instrumental built largely on weepy pizzicato strings. Krell’s laptop soundscapes have been beefed-up and spit-shined, yet they maintain the ethereal voodoo that turned so many heads in the first place. (Some of that credit should inevitably go to co-producer Rodaidh McDonald, who—based on his work with electro-soul minimalists The xx—knows a thing or two about harnessing huge impact from small spaces.)
On Love Remains, Krell swallowed his pain: Ambience was a coping mechanism, detachment a stylistic trademark. On the poignant and powerful Total Loss, he’s finally invited us all in.