How To Dress Well @ Thekla, Bristol, Sunday 19th May Review

When I was a kid I listened to Michael Jackson a lot. I loved his music and the way he sang. One of my favourite songs back then was ‘Dirty Diana’. I liked how when MJ sang the words snapped from the speakers with such urgency. It was like he was running out of breath and needed to say all he had to say before the chorus, before he ran out of time. The words were forced out of him by an adult impetus completely alien to a nine year old me. I did not understand what he sang about or why he sang about it in that way but my body reacted to it. I danced. Tom Krell’s voice has the same effect on me. It is just now that I’m an adult, I know a little of the world he sings about.

When Krell aka How To Dress Well sings he communicates emotion with an intensity that impacts physically. His second album Total Loss is raw with grief but somehow it still makes me move. Not so much the precision of the electro R&B beats, as good as they are, but because of the way the words escape when he sings. They emerge because they have to, because they can’t stay inside. Tonight, watching it happen live, I feel it more. Krell’s falsetto lands like a suckerpunch.

When he performs Suicide Dream 1 from debut Love Remains, it is mesmerising and intense. Krell distances himself from the two microphones at the front of the stage, carefully controlling how much of his voice is transmitted electronically and how much is carried through the air. His sole companion on stage, Aaron Read, plays a yearning violin motif. On a screen at the back of the stage, screaming faces multiply and morph. It can’t be easy to perform a track about a friend that has passed away and as Krell puts it “trying to sing like an angel” to a room full of strangers, but nonetheless he does it. Again, on new track ‘Blue’, Krell makes himself vulnerable, both with his own unflinching honesty and decision to perform acapella. The track, which explores his complex and troubled relationship with his “hot mess” of a brother, is as emotionally direct as anything that he performs tonight and is a stunning closer.

Much of tonight’s set though comes from Total Loss, an album about struggle and death. It is Krell’s catharsis committed to wax, laid-bare not for vanity or art, but out of necessity. Over the 11 songs, emotions emerge from him as a series of ghostly whispers only to be instantly swamped in spectral atmospherics. The emotions you hear on Total Loss are unprocessed but now Krell seems to understand them, now he owns them. Choruses, which on record were like semi-colons serving to briefly stem the outpouring of his soul, are now delivered with authority. Tonight ‘Set It Right’ is transformed into a powerful optimistic statement of intent and new song ‘No More Death’ is a soul-quaking roar of defiance. Krell knows death, has seen enough of it, but will not be held back by it.

Krell appreciates more than most the importance of connections between people. Tonight, he communicates difficult experiences with the audience through his voice and through his music. Rather than being depressing though, it is an uplifting experience. It is about triumphing over adversity, about hope and ultimately about being alive.

Tom Spooner