How to Dress Well’s decision to gussy up a handful of tracks from his masterful Love Remains is, in essence, an interesting thought experiment. What happens when you take something that was beautiful because it was gorgeously flawed and turn it into something that is beautiful because it is conventionally gorgeous?
The songs that made up Love Remains were bathed in acid, cleaned with scouring pad, and bleached in the scorching kilowatts of the afternoon sun. The tape hiss and feedback gunk that accumulated on these fragile slow jams was part and parcel of their stark beauty. Now, however, How to Dress Well has re-recorded some of their rough beauties, backing them with a clear piano and a lush chamber orchestra. The most immediate effect of this intense beautification process is realizing that you’re experiencing something like the Platonic forms of Krell’s songs. These versions are polished, elevated, idealized, the strings raising them beyond the humble muck of their origins.
All the credit, of course, goes to the strength of Krell’s compositions that they can withstand such a treatment. ”Suicide Dream 1,” in particular, gains the most from the makeover. The song’s lyrics become infinitely clearer, and it’s a real tear-jerker: “I was sleeping in the back of the car we took/And now I’m just missing you.” And the revamped “Decisions” remains as bittersweet and lovely as it has always been. Though these songs lose a bit of their R&B flavor, they retain enough to allow us to find their deeper soul. They aren’t just to products of a bedroom R&B revivalist; these are wholly unique compositions of someone who knows the conventions well enough to subvert them beyond almost all recognition.
The most important change, however, is Krell’s angelic voice itself. We got a bit of the true glory of Krell’s voice on his breathtaking cover of R. Kelly’s wistful “I Wish,” but here we’re treated to his unadorned talent. He doesn’t pull any notes or reach for heights he can’t hit; everything is perfectly measured, especially when he double-tracks his voice to harmonize with itself.
Though Just Once more ostensibly pretty than Love Remains, they nonetheless share an important attribute: Krell is seemingly still interested in maintaining intensities. Instead of EQ busting feedback and squall, the string section occasionally descends to bring some serious air to the song, lifting it from its moorings. The moments when the strings bloom and flourish are analogous to the swells of feedback that dominated Love Remains‘ aesthetic. But more importantly, Krell has managed to retain the essential spirit of the original songs. On his post announcing the release of the EP, he quotes Rainer Maria Rilke, the gloomiest romantic to ever pick up a pen: ”And we too / once. Never again. But this having been once / even if only once: to have been of the earth seems irrevocable.” This comes from Rilke’s arresting Duino Elegies (the ninth elegy, in particular), and it’s bewilderingly sad realization that all of us must come to one day. Just Once is dedicated to Krell’s friend Ryan Douglas Hutchon, who died last September. When Krell confesses ”I think about you daily, daily, daily” in the stirring climax of “Suicide Dream 1,” it’s enough crack your swollen heart in two miserable pieces. And the only thing you can really do is brace yourself because you have three more tracks of heartbreak coming your way.
Rating: 8.5 / 10
N.B.: A dollar from each sale of the vinyl edition (of which there are only 1000) will be donated to MindFreedom.org, an organization devoted to promoting human rights within international health care systems. Also, if that isn’t enough incentive for your cynical heart, then those lucky enough to snag a platter will get a handwritten note from Krell himself.