By Pat Gunther
Tom Krell’s third studio album under his moniker ‘How To Dress Well’ – titled What Is This Heart?” – provides listeners with an honest and thoughtful approach to the pseudo-genre of electronic/indie/r&b fusion.
Krell, a philosophy PhD student at DePaul University in Chicago, is more vulnerable and open than ever before.
On the albums opening track, “2 Years On (Shame Dream),” he laments about his brothers being in bed with strange women, his father’s hateful/violent verbiage, and the history of mental illness in his family. Krell bears his soul over soft acoustic guitar chords that perfectly set the sonic scene for a depressed, downtrodden ballad ruminating on the lack of god, and family troubles.
The album from that point forward, co-produced by Rodaidh McDonald of XL Recordings, employs a number of rock/r&b/hip-hop and electronic genre bending tunes that leave listeners, weirdly depressed but also kind-of-sort-of hopeful.
Krell, apparently, is not one to hold back and uses himself as his primary example and artistic muse on What Is This Heart? Tracks such as “Face Again” utilize pounding and weighty synths coupled with a subtle low octave auto-tuned vocal chorus to drive along a track that has Krell yet again second guessing what he knows, and if he can even figure it out on his own.
How To Dress Well transitions, on track to track, to more ‘90s inspired soft R&B with his signature pained falsetto, over beautiful and airy piano and drum work that any hip-hop head will immediately notice, between his electronic, sometimes-glitch style placed throughout the record.
Krell’s vulnerability, introspection, honesty and general lust is an incredibly powerful tool from a listener’s standpoint, and can resonate with anyone who has a functioning heart and the ability to hear. Standout tracks such as “Repeat Pleasure” harp on a relationship with people that never seem quite satisfied. The upbeat 1980s vibe and muted guitar chords under a repeated clap will certainly provide Krell with some radio money and more commercial reach, but also illustrate his incredible production abilities that rumored inquires from Yeezus himself.
Though the instrumentation is incredibly catchy, Krell has put a premium on his lyrics, which could not better illustrate his chosen field of study. Unfortunately to some, without a lyric sheet it may be hard for some listeners to keep up with such densely packed descriptions and stories. Maybe the top-notch production will make this an enjoyable album for some people, but the insight into Krell’s clearly emotionally painful past is something to be spoken for.
Additionally, certain tracks feel out-of-place and the album as a whole feels rather disjointed at times. I don’t know of any other artist who can go from sounding like a boy band pop star on one track, to the depressing and painful subject matter that Krell peppers throughout.
Overall, What Is This Heart? is a wonderful record that really does have something for everybody. Within the lyrical content, as Krell undoubtedly did, one can find solace and comfort in some of these downtrodden but relatable messages.
On the opening track Krell muses on the lack of a God, and to be honest, battles with these realizations and notions of isolation and pain throughout.
Ultimately, on the album’s final track “House Inside (Future Is Older Than The Past)” Krell injects a dose of positivity into an overall dark work, but does not let that darkness fade. Krell lets his pain and suffering linger while discovering love, life and happiness at the end. Though, lyrically cliché and over-emotional at times, Tom Krell has made the listener his therapist of sorts, and in turn, has instilled hope in some fans who probably need it. At the end of the day, as How To Dress Well alludes, tomorrow is a new day and we can only hope to carry all of these things we’ve learned, good and bad, with us forward.