Words About Music
How to Dress Well “What Is This Heart?”
If you ask most people, the world of murky, ethereal R&B is ruled by The Weeknd. But ever since he sort of tarnished his legacy with his lackluster debut studio album “Kiss Land,” I’m beginning to rethink things. Coming at the right time is How to Dress Well, the project of singer/producer Tom Krell. He’s always been sort of under the radar, but his 2010 debut “Love Remains” and 2012 followup “Total Loss” received nearly unanimous acclaim from critics. His third album “What Is This Heart?” is his best yet and cements his place as a force to be reckoned with in American independent music. The soft, dark production and seductive vocal performance throughout this album makes it one of the most compelling releases of the year, and probably one of the best so-called “PBR&B” albums ever released.
One of the most notable aspects of this album is the restrained yet also poppy production, courtesy of Rodaidh McDonald, who’s also produced for Savages, The xx, and King Krule, as well as Krell’s previous album “Total Loss.” The album feels like a simultaneous callback to Janet Jackson or TLC and a forward-thinking progression on Drake and Justin Timberlake’s established aesthetics. It serves as an excellent background to Krell’s incredibly honest and beautiful lyricism. It’s minimalistic, calculated, and no-holds-barred emotive. While we’re waiting for Frank Ocean’s sophomore LP, we can all appreciate that How to Dress Well is just as talented and important in the modern R&B scene.
It is very easy for an R&B album to be completely lacking in soul or experimentation or emotion. It can be overproduced, over-performed, and cheesy. Tom Krell manages to avoid all of that by being modest in his performance but also tender and backed with a range of emotions. He manages to make the entire genre sound cool. “What Is This Heart?” sounds current and nostalgic in all the best ways. Love is one of the most complicated emotions there is. It’s also the most common trope in music. It can get old and kitschy and boring, but Tom Krell manages to not only write 12 varying songs about the emotion but also make it appealing with the addition of Fever Ray-esque pitch-shifting and Bon Iver-esque instrumentation. It’s not run of the mill, it’s extraordinary.
“What Is This Heart?” sounds like more than an R&B album. It’s an amalgamation of indie rock, hip-hop, and electronic experimentation over the past decade. It is a powerful, intense, moving record that is easy to get lost in. It’s only a matter of time before Tom Krell is playing to the kind of audience The Weeknd sees every night. Maybe we’ll hear him singing hooks on rap songs in the near future a la Justin Vernon. Whatever this album does to Krell’s career—which it hopefully launches—it certainly serves as an usurp. Step aside, Abel Tesfaye. We’re looking at the new king of murky, ethereal R&B. He may say “I don’t have the power” on the album, but anyone who gives this album even a cursory listen should be convinced that he does.
SCORE – 9.1
BEST TRACKS – 2 Years On (Shame Dream), What You Wanted, Face Again, See You Fall, Words I Don’t Remember, Pour Cyril, Childhood Faith in Love (Everything Must Change, Everything Must Stay the Same), A Power, Very Best Friend, House Inside (Future is Older Than the Past)