“What Is This Heart?” By How To Dress Well

Release Date: June 24, 2014

How To Dress Well | “What Is This Heart?” | Rating: 8.5 /11 |

Sound design has its place in a record collection, particularly when it is parceled with romantic distress, emotional anguish and/or delving into and through Tom Krell’s aka How To Dress Well’s dialogue of what was, is and may never be if his failures and shortcomings don’t right themselves. On this, his third album, How To Dress Well’s sonic world is a blacker shade of blue looking for the light with more honesty than is generally comfortable yet, on the upside, here’s an powerful pop vehicle laced with a sheen of synth and currents of R&B. Welcome to What Is This Heart?

Stepping around the insular, bare bones and somewhat frightening opener, “2 Years On (Shame Dream),” “What Is This Heart?” begins to erect itself. Krell’s voice takes expressive shape in the push and pull of doubt and boomy depth of “Face Again” with admissions like “You know I want an answer / I forgot the question” laying as much fault at his feet as at those of another. You get the gist of what’s going on here; still, you’ll be inclined to stick around for the journey through eerie echoes, textures and the warped fragility of Krell’s falsetto pouring through. Some of the best moments are those fresh and retro trips into the 90’s ala Color Me Badd to PM Dawn in “Precious Love” (yes, the delivery of the line “It goes too fast”could not be more a pull from Hanson’s “Mmmm Bop” if it tried) and “Repeat Pleasure.” The latter being as perfect a fusion of pop, soul, delicate dance and funk (that guitar) as they come. It’s such a shiny piece of song that if it tripped over itself and fell into fluff, you could absolutely forgive it because it’s that good. But it doesn’t which makes it great. Now where primarily laptop-made music is concerned, experimentation and samples are inevitable. This is just an accepted fact. Nevertheless, one of the quirkiest samples of late has got to be the telephone hold music used as the foundation for “Precious Love” (listen to that music HERE because there’s a 97% chance you’ve lingered in hold hell to the tune of it). To keep things relatable, one could place How To Dress Well somewhere between warmer than James Blake and more wounded/less angelic than Active Child with a sensuality and lyrical clarity that never steps on or outside of the boundaries of taste no matter the source of his sorrow.  Betrayal, mental illness…it’s in there.

By now, no one bats an eye at the notion of a white guy with a predilection for R&B, but where Krell is concerned, it reads less like a predilection, more like an innate sense of direction being used to communicate with adult sincerity. When the break down/vocal cut bridge in “Words I Don’t Remember” drops, the urge for hands to raise is irresistible. The prolific use of the word “baby” has always been one of the most annoying vocal traps of R&B singers (particularly Keith Sweat) but, throughout the record, Krell embraces it as a natural, sentimental capture. Is the album’s title a rhetorical question? I don’t know but “What Is This Heart?” is a confident and realized piece of work all while it streams like a tableau of Krell’s world and heart being broken apart then delicately stitched together. This you can be sure of when “Very Best Friend” assures that the heart of his hope is never far out of reach.

Essential Tracks: “See You Fall,” “Precious Love,” “Repeat Pleasure,” “Words I Don’t Remember”