How to Dress Well ‘What Is This Heart?’ – Review

10 Jul

The first time I saw the cover of ‘What Is This Heart’, How To Dress Well’s third album, I thought maybe it was a parody of po-faced singer songwriter album sleeves. Or perhaps it was ironic; something simple to contrast with the obscure and difficult music contained within. Maybe it was a play on Tom Krell’s reputation as somebody who hides in the shadows. There were many possibilities, but at no point did I consider that this stark, up-front portrait was a symbolic representation of the music; it wasn’t at all likely that the songs would be as honest, direct and personal as the image. But they are. From an artist who used to refuse interviews and perform behind a curtain it’s an astonishing about turn, but his point seems to be that being brutally open can cause as much intrigue as being hidden.

But there’s more going on here; after years of mystery and misdirection, you shouldn’t expect everything to be exactly as it seems. The more you look at the picture, the more you see the sadness in Krell’s eyes and the weariness in his expression. If you look beyond the surface and really examine the face, you’ll see just how weird and ultimately tragic it actually is. Not just Krell’s face, but any face. Take the nose for example. Stop, take yourself out of your shoes and just think about the nose for a bit. What does it look like? It’s a bizarre facial feature if you consider it from an alien perspective. And frown lines – what do they represent? And how about the bags under our eyes or the flecks of grey in a beard? This is how to think about the songs as well; not just as the simple, everyday pop songs they initially appear to be, but as examples of how downright weird some simple, everyday pop songs are capable of being. Krell forces you to reconsider pop norms, and he does this by being as candid as possible.

Unlike the songs on ‘Love Remains’ and ‘Total Loss’, these aren’t so much deconstructions of pop songs as actual pop songs. I found Krell’s older work too calculated and manipulated to really enjoy, and when I recently read about his attempts to inject humour in to his live shows I got the impression that even this was a calculated ploy, not something natural and spontaneous but a pre-determined move to lighten the mood. This was how How to Dress Well rolled; Krell’s intellectual curiosity won out. ‘Love Remains’ and ‘Total Loss’, whilst being great albums in certain ways, ultimately felt too much like theses. ‘What is this Heart?’ is a completely different proposition. Instead of being a vehicle for Tom’s intellectual ideas, the album feels like a release from them. It’s as if his brain has exploded and these songs are the glorious offshoots. This is an album that starts a conversation and then lets you do the thinking, whereas his past albums did all the thinking for you.

Krell is theatrical, enthusiastic, and passionate in his embrace of pop music tropes. His melodies sound joyous and spontaneous, moving freely without restriction or confinement. The sonic details are sparkling and on point. The arrangements are minimal but enjoyable. It’s an album of real self-exposure that verges on embarrassment (singing ‘my heart will go on’ in a piercing falsetto is the riskiest move an indie dude will pull off this year). I’m reminded that ‘What Is This Heart’ and albums of its ilk are only possible in the first place because of How To Dress Well’s’ innovative and trend-making debut, ‘Love Remains’, an album that has been said, rightly or wrongly, to have kickstarted the recent wave of indie r&b (or PB R&B as its become known). Krell has made it possible to take these risks without fear of condemnation. There is a sense in 21st century that anything is possible for a young and talented maverick and he really uses that freedom to his advantage here.

So we get ‘Repeat Pleasure’, a tune that takes Krell’s voice in a series of adventurous and quirky directions. It’s Justin Timberlake on hallucinogenics. On the surface ‘Repeat Pleasure’ is a simple love song, but as we’ve established, nothing is ever simple with How to Dress Well. Krell has found love and sings joyously of the pleasures it brings, but comes to the conclusion that once you’ve found this joy you will be seeking it for the rest of your life – possibly to no avail. ‘The truth could never come without your smile’ he cries, overcome by knowledge of pleasure that is potentially out of reach. ‘What Is This Heart’ is not a happy album; it acknowledges happiness but knows that happiness is uncertain, and potentially destructive. ‘I can’t understand how the world could hold up all this pain and all this weight’ is the ultimate realisation here and Krell’s conclusion is that there’s ‘no mercy’. Despite the album’s closing thought, that the world is a beautiful place, this is not a particularly uplifting album. It presents a naked, uncomfortable truth and asks you to deal with it.

Krell’s voice, once obscured, looped and distorted beyond recognition, is now bright and clear. You can imagine these tunes being pop hits but at the same time, they would never be pop hits. There is something too otherworldly and off-centre about them. It’s difficult to pin down what it is exactly, but How to Dress Well wouldn’t sound at home on top 40 radio despite making blatant top 40 material (admittedly that says more about the state of top 40 radio than it does How to Dress Well’). Does Krell even want to be the all-conquering mega pop star? All his recent actions seem to be suggesting that he does but the same time I’m sure he’s pretty comfortable as a underground cult artist. Maybe he’ll end up where he started out in college, as the frontman of a punk band. I even read that he sees himself as a 21st century folk artist. His restlessness, hyper-intelligence and curiosity will ultimately prevent him from becoming that pop star you see a glimpse of here, but those traits make him a real artist. As it stands he is one of a handful of the most important people making music in the 21st century and one of the very few genuine musical innovators to emerge this side of the millennium.

8.5/10

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