Album Review: How To Dress Well - “What Is This Heart?”

Tom Krell has always been a thinker. On 2010 debut Love Remains, Krell introduced us to his unique blend of slow jam R&B and heady philosophy (what he studied at school in Brooklyn and Cologne, Germany) with an unforgettable collection of heartbreaking magic. On 2012 breakthrough Total Loss, Krell contemplated the death of a close friend on a deeply personal record that saw Krell perfecting his songwriting and production while simultaneously figuring out his best way to cope. With time on the road and a smattering of memorable Internet mixes and mixtapes behind him, Krell gives us album #3 this week. With a growing fan-base and a generally improved public understanding of what How To Dress Well is all about (the guy puts out a pretty substantial amount of eclectic material, between writings, DJ sets, cover mixes, and a plethora of other things), “What Is This Heart?” has a ton of potential to put Tom on a bigger map than his lower profile previous records. This week, the record drops, and there’s no question in our minds that it will accomplish all that Krell has been working towards. “What Is This Heart?” is Krell’s most accessible and engaging record yet by leaps and bounds, and you’ll be seeing and hearing plenty more of it this year near the top of “Best of 2014″ lists.

Listening to the brilliant single “Repeat Pleasure”, it’s easy to forget that How To Dress Well hasn’t always been this easy of a sell. Krell’s old records dive head first into the darkest parts of man’s soul on nearly every track. Unforgettable older cuts like “Suicide Dream” 1 and 2 and “You Won’t Need Me Where I’m Going” embrace darkness and death then fearlessly reconcile them to human compassion - not exactly template top of the pops material. Even here on “What Is This Heart?”, the album opens with a bit of a coda to the “Suicide Dream” cuts (aptly subtitled “Shame Dream”). Here, Krell begins his next dive by recalling where he’s been before - first to the general human condition addressed on Love Remains, then to the personal application of Total Loss. Throughout “What Is This Heart?”, Krell balances these two perfectly, making his inquiries just personal enough for listeners to relate them back to their own lives.

Continuing where Total Loss left off, “What Is This Heart?” is (rightfully so) even more of a roller coaster through the heart at its self-induced chaos. On “What You Wanted”, Krell wrestles with himself, not knowing when to trust instinct and when to let the mind provide feedback. On the airy “See You Fall”, Krell fights against a culture of instant gratification and wants to work to understand his place in a loving relationship. “Repeat Pleasure” tackles the never-ending struggle of human desire and how we find security in malcontent. Though the musicality has brightened a bit from the cold marble undertones of Total Loss, don’t be fooled that Krell has found some mundane source of baseless happiness. As he voiced to SPIN last week, he still believes the world is a brutal, godless place, and that much of our human lives are simply dedicated to finding a meaning beyond selfishness. Asking that question on every track makes the record incredibly personal for Tom. But in “What Is This Heart?”, Krell keeps the conversation going, giving listeners plenty to consider in their own lives and then share with others.

Musically, “What Is This Heart?” sees the sparse How To Dress Well landscape of years past shifting into a lush, massive horizon. “Words I Can’t Remember” show off the fact that Krell hasn’t forgotten how to use space and quiet to his advantage - the track is a six minute wonder that will leave you in pieces. But elsewhere, Krell’s production really takes things up a notch. “What You Wanted” is a subtly brilliant pop R&B track that begs to explode at every corner. But Tom saves the explosions for the next track, “Face Again”, whose sensual, bass-heavy chorus is bound to be a high point of the upcoming tour’s live set. And, as if it needs any more credit at this point, “Repeat Pleasure” takes every separate How To Dress Well motif and packs them all into the most pitch-perfect pop track Krell has put together yet, and easily one of the top tracks of year.

On the second half, Krell embraces a multitude of muses to push the record to a new musical place not yet reached in his prior catalogue. “Pour Cyril” nods at Tom’s Love Remains era use of a blown out mix against a soaring string arrangement. “Precious Love” gives us an unapologetically aughts-heavy R&B track before “Childhood Faith In Love” explodes off the track with unconditional love and doubtless passion. Finally, the record’s fantastic closer embraces Krell’s longtime love for The-Dream with the “XO”-esque “House Inside”. After all of the battles and the doubts in between, Krell ends the record with a pretty concise synopsis: “This world is such a pretty thing”. It’s not simple by any means - it took a lot of loss and doubt and questioning to get there, but Krell proves to all of us that darkness is not the end all, and that love is still enough.

The cover of Total Loss is a horizontal marble bust of Tom Krell’s head, removed from the body. On the other hand, “What Is This Heart? is decorated with a Martin Schoeller-esque close up shot of Krell, made of flesh and bone, looking out past the camera at some distant horizon. I think the choice is pretty intentional - Krell’s new record gives us a deeply personal look at the artist that lives and breathes and continues to evolve through its listeners. The human experience is a beautiful and complex thing, and living it without proper thought is a mistake Tom Krell isn’t willing to make. With a transparent soul and a compassionate heart, Krell opens the door and welcomes us in on “What Is This Heart?” to walk along with him. Take the opportunity - you’ll be better off for it.

What Is This Heart? is out this week on Weird World. Pick up the CD or beautiful deluxe vinyl at your local record store. How To Dress Well will play Neumos on Wednesday, August 27. Grab tickets here.

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