There’s a quote in The Devil Wears Prada (no wait, stick with us here). The character of Meryl Streep, playing the hard-ass editor of an ersatz Vogue, begins to lecture a dismissive Anne Hathaway about how she’s come to wear a particular blue sweater.
“You think this has nothing to do with you,” she says. “But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise. It’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean. And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin.” How To Dress Well indeed.
In today’s landscape of both contemporary and alternative R&B, that clearance bin is an act like The Weeknd, and Oscar de la Renta is irrefutably Tom Krell, the man behind HTDW. We first came across him through early demos and EPs, the work of clearly a somewhat tortured Philosophy student largely based in Germany.
That Krell was studying this particular subject is important, given how much of his early writing is weighted in that Kantian methodology. And out came Love Remains – a title whose hopefulness is offset by the oppressively dark sleeve, a wrong turn on a dark night with no telling what menace might prop up in front of the headlights.
But by making his audience confront the darkness within and without, Krell also seemed to be holding up a mirror to his own tortured psyche. Dealing with death, dealing with pain, dealing with an upbringing few of us could imagine – these were all sources he used to create his modern masterpiece.
Listening to it again, it’s understandable why we – and a lot of the people we insist on playing it to – find it quite impenetrable as a record on first listen. In a world of HD sheen, the deliberate reverb and crackling seems almost offensive. And in a world where Twitter accessibility was just a fledgling concept, it seemed all the more frustrating that an artiste would invite us into his personal world only to have it obfuscating with a sonic smokescreen at the last minute.
And then a third of the way through it hits. “What would it mean to live a life that wasn’t like this?” are the words we manage to make out from the dense thickets of Suicide Dream 2. It’s a song like no other in the last ten years, and a song that’s never likely to find an equal in the depth of its raw, gut-wrenching emotion. Krell’s wails are the very definition of goosebumps, tearing down any sense of restraint and making us feel his pain. As the dust settles over the sparse, twinkling background, he ironically comes up for air with a refrain of ‘air, no air, no air’.
Of course, it’s in the jigsaw of Krell’s mind that the album is bookended with a more hopeful Suicide Dream 1, far beyond its sequel. But in the midst of that there are more challenging soundscapes, more jungles of his psyche to navigate. Some, like Can’t See My Own Face (that name sounds familiar, doesn’t it?), are under the two-minute mark but cram in vintage R&B while also being a blueprint to inform his own later work like Running Back.
And it’s that sense of R&B that sticks through this searing debut album. Krell is clearly a fan of old-school pop and the Mariah-style melody, but it never feels like appropriation. He does with the genre what no one has replicated on either side – not even Krell himself, as with each iterative album he bursts further and further out of that clouded production and becomes a more confident performer in every way.
But there’s no denying the impact that Love Remains has had on us, or Krell, or the landscape of both R&B and pop. His flecks of impassioned sonic cerulean are what’s filtered down into electronic R&B, though it’s all very shiny and superficial. There are the obligatory falsettos and looped beats, but so few performers can back it up by being so naked on record and letting their voice go to the place it cracks under emotional weight. Love certainly remains, as does the legacy of one of the most incredible debut albums we’re likely to see in our lifetime.