Albums / EPs, Reviews

Album Review: How To Dress Well – “What is This Heart?”

“This world is such a pretty thing.” These are the last words whispered by Tom Krell, the Chicago-born…

“This world is such a pretty thing.” These are the last words whispered by Tom Krell, the Chicago-born 29 year-old behind How To Dress Well, on ‘House Inside (Future is Older Than The Past)’, which closes the emotionally bewildering hour that is his third full-length release, “What is This Heart?”. This life-glorifying affirmation is not a benighted platitude. It’s a tentative conclusion reached after Krell’s shamelessly honest musings on pain, despair and suffering. “What is This Heart?” asks a personal question that gives a universal answer: its is a paean for the victory of love and constructed meaning in Krell’s nihilistic world. And in spite of this heaviness, Krell has crafted How To Dress Well’s most accessible album to date. It taps a well of cultural influences deeper than its soul-stirring subject matter and redefines the tiresome intersection of Pop, RnB and Indie Rock. That “What Is This Heart?” is thus both a philosophical thesis and a bona fide pop album is its greatest merit – a delicate balance attained neither by Krell’s previous work nor his contemporaries. 

Both Love Remains (2010) and Total Loss (2012) exhibited Krell free-flowing in his characteristic falsetto form, but then the Berlin-based Philosophy PnD was still a distant voice, insulated by an impenetrable layer of tear-soaked ambience. These albums saw Krell and his producer, Rodaidh McDonald (The xx, King Krule), challenging the boundaries of beat-backed ethereality and inadvertently pioneering a ‘new genre’ in the process. Indeed, the internet simply could not explain a gangly white dude covering R-Kelly songs as anything but ‘Indie-RnB.’ Today, however, the word ‘Alt-RnB’ is an overloaded bandwagon for any artist layering vaguely emotive lyrics over an 808 backbeat. It offers as little descriptive value as ‘surf-pop’ did during the now-forgotten rise of Captured Tracks signatories, Beach Fossils and Wild Nothing, toward the end of the last decade. 

“Frankly, I’ve moved on from that,” tells Krell in an interview with SPIN, referring his desire to distance himself from the passé terms that he was complicit in constructing. “What is This Heart?” thus transcends its foundations. It exists in a stylistic vacuum, straddling the most commercial and most cultivated aspects this millennium’s music styles without admitting loyalty to either two camps. This is explicitly the result of Krell’s own tastes, evidenced by his Hungover Mix and No Words To Say: “Songs for What is This Heart? that juxtapose Justin Bieber with Taking Back Sunday and Future with Tracy Chapman. 

How To Dress Well has also broken through its sound barrier of insecurity and now Krell’s voice stands in the foreground with shameless clarity. ‘2 Years On (Shame Dream)’ states this at the outset, beginning with glistening acoustic fingerpicking as lucid as the fictional recollection of family strife about which Krell sings. This song is the gatekeeper to What Is This Heart?. With the line “There is no designer God / just the future of my mother’s broken heart” Krell sets the tone for existential debate and an uncertainty of the future which reoccurs in songs like ‘House Again’ and ‘Repeat Pleasure.’ Krell’s past of dealing with the death of his and Aspergers of both of his brothers have left him with an unshakeable propensity for sadness. This makes highlighting individual songs on What Is This Heart? an almost insolent practice, in the same way that living though brief moments of another’s grieve and happiness cannot give one an idea of their lifetime. From the vindictive confessions of ‘See You Fall’ to the absolute jubilation of ‘Precious Love’, the album is unequivocally and experience to be lived through uninterrupted. 

Nevertheless, certain songs highlight Krell’s intentions as a singer/songwriter on “What is This Heart?”. The symphonic power of ‘Pour Cyril’ is simply heart wrenching. It is an ode to the protagonist in The Kid With A Bike (2011), a film about childhood abandonment and its destruction of the innocence of youth, it replaces ‘Decisions (Orchestral Version)’ from Krell’s Just Once EP (2011) as his most tear-jerking vocal performance to date. ‘Face Again’ is hauntingly unsettlinging, an omen for just how compelling How To Dress Well can be when meticulous high-end production is favoured over the bedroom-based cloudiness of his past works. Disjointed sighs and bellowing duel vocals retell Krell’s disillusionment with life, death and the human achievements in between, and his most abstract music video for the song at times personifies this confusion. ‘Face Again’ also serves as the centre piece of “What Is This Heart?” in terms of its production style, a benchmark for modern music in the post-Yeezus era. Krell’s tumultuous insides are most exposed on ‘A Power’, a dizzying and abrasive rant fuelled by his high-school attraction to late 2000 emo acts, A Starting Line and Saves the Day. The eclectic blending of emo and hip hop on “What is This Heart?” is post-modern cultural appropriation at is best. This reaches its heights on ‘Precious Love’, the brightest four minutes of “What Is This Heart?”’. Having transformed Cisco Systems telephone hold music into a popular love ballad, Krell taunts at the irony of the utterly banal being a genuine ode to his most inviolable value of all. 

But as Krell lays bare his heart for questioning, he renders it vulnerable to criticism. The unrelenting emotiveness of “What Is This Heart?” may strike some as mere pretence, a pseudo-profound gimmick no more genuine that as its ironic inspirers, in the likes of Justin Bieber and Ashanti. But while ‘Very Best Friend’ smacks with the danceability of Bieber’s ‘Baby’, the latter rightfully belongs to an album entitled “#whatevenislife?” and the former that begs a more erudite question. Moreover, the simplicity with which Krell croons lines like “I’m wanting, wanting, waiting waiting, wanting love” in ‘What You Wanted’ could be seen to boarder on the basic. To such claims he replies in ‘Very Best Friend’ that “I could say it smarter / but I want it gentle.” Krell’s straightforward and uncomplicated songwriting departs from the abstruseness of previous works like ‘How Many?’ and ‘Set it Right.’ But this makes his uber-personal anecdotes universally accessible, as anything that he confesses on “What Is This Heart?” could apply without change to the personal existential and heartbroken crises of its listeners. This relatableness is the most beautiful aspect of How To Dress Well’s music. It captures the notion that one’s own profound experiences are always equal to those of everybody else in the world, that every other person has or will live through events of comparable individual value to that of your own most memorable. 

The contrast between the profound and popular, the personal and universal, makes “What Is This Heart?” an artwork to be disregarded at the risk of ignorance. Exhausted, distant, and forlorn, Krell peers into the distance on the cover of his magnum opus, unsure of the answers to the question he has posed. However, songs like ‘Childhood Faith in Love (Everything Must Change Everything Must Stay The Same)’ and ‘Words I Don’t Remember’ reaffirm Krell’s beliefs that there is always a slim but beautiful victory for love over the hardships of his Godless universe. Arriving at this complex conclusion with the musical prowess he displays has no doubt taken its toll on Krell, and “What Is This Heart?” displays his face as its cross to bare for these efforts. 

 

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