How to Dress Well: “What is This Heart?”

source: How to Dress Well

Text Alfonso Gomez

Last year, performing at the Bee for the Upfront series, Tom Krell decided that the night’s coda should involve only his voice – a karaoke-esque higher register; a falsetto that bordered on whistle. It’s no secret that Krell doesn’t have the best live voice in r’n’b, but that performance was bettered by the unflinching melancholy of his vocal chords. The strained rasp when he stretched his range too high authenticated the emotional veracity of the a cappella ode to his brother. If possessing the best voice was the key to good music, reality TV would have been more effective at unearthing good singers. Not everyone in the crowd lapped it up though, some were exorbitantly critical (“He should have been the opening act,” said one out-of-touch KOL), yet that kind of vulnerability – both in the croak of his tired voice and the sensitivity in delivering the song’s subject matter – is brave. Tom Krell is fearless that way.

His third LP as How to Dress Well, “What is This Heart?”, cements that sentiment in more ways than the expected. Treading populist soundscape while maintaining art house sensibilities in broad strokes, the album continues the trend that has seen Krell going in an upward trajectory in terms of accessibility since the decidedly uncommercial Love Remains – the drone-y lo-fi r’n’b debut of How to Dress Well. Like outsider compatriot Autre Ne Veut, he has chosen to fully immerse himself in pop music this time around – a sentiment he has expressed in promotional interviews of this latest collection.

The result is an album that’s further from the outré’n’b of previous releases and closer to the more popular sounds of the genre he is often time lumped into. Musical tropes heard in songs by the likes of Miguel, Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, and even Beyoncé (in her latest incarnation) can be gleaned here: pitched down/pitched up vocals, clap-able hooks and finger-snapping moments, looping vocals, celebratory production, and broad, broad emotions, sometimes all bandied together on a single track. The last is particularly of note. Despite delivering big, sweeping emotions, Krell’s lyrics never felt disingenuous or pandering. It reminded us of Michael Angelakos’ seminal Gossamer in a lot of ways; both managed to capture the all-encompassing sentimentality of pop that appeals to everyone without losing the truth in their art.

Coincidentally, both singers have imperfect high register vocals that serve to their advantage, and just like Gossamer, “What is This Heart?” has Krell changing his voice to a surprisingly even higher key on certain tracks. One of the album highlights, stadium r’n’b-channelling ‘Precious Love’ ends with a microcosmic version of our live experience with How to Dress Well last year – Krell shifts his higher key to a feminine note that absolutely stunts, albeit just for a few seconds. It’s a vocal segue that could potentially draw ire – or worse, ridicule – but just as he dropped the use of gadgetry and music for an a cappella performance, the choice was an artistic risk. One which he adroitly keeps ephemeral, the magic might not work the longer the jarring key is let loose.

Elsewhere on the album, Krell’s pop leanings prove more than adept at drawing comparisons with his mainstream counterparts. ‘Face Again’ sees the downshifted aesthetic of Abel Tesfaye’s best with the sub-bass and jarring beat shifts of Yeezus and the creepy synths of Scandinavian electronic pop. ‘Words I Don’t Remember’ has the title and catchiness of Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dream (complete with the coos and ah’s and sweet nothings: “You know that I love you, baby”). And like Miguel, it ends with an ambitious referential coda to the artist formerly known as a symbol, Prince. ‘Childhood Faith in Love (Everything Must Change, Everything Must Stay the Same)’ is as light as Beyoncé’s last surprise release. While subtracting her Christian upbringing’s overtone, the song is still a remarkably spiritual jamboree. Here, Krell delivers the central thesis of this album; flits of the heart’s turmoil, be it of joy or pain, is a panacea.

“What is This Heart?” asks a question in quotation marks, suggesting that it is a rhetorical one. Like much of pop, it’s left broad and deliberately ambiguous. But Tom Krell is an artiste with a vision. The ‘heart’, we surmise, is what’s explored on the album and the answer is the last few words sung on end track ‘House Inside (Future is Older than the Past)’ – “Such a pretty, pretty thing.”

LISTEN TO: ‘Words I Don’t Remember’

1. 2 Years On (Shame Dream)
2. What You Wanted
3. Face Again
4. See You Fall
5. Repeat Pleasure
6. Words I Don’t Remember
7. Pour Cyril
8. Precious Love
9. Childhood Faith in Love (Everything Must Change, Everything Must Stay the Same)
10. A Power
11. Very Best Friend
12. House Inside (Future is Older than the Past)