How To Dress Well - What Is This Heart

Here’s something we never really knew before: Tom Krell can sing. Krell has been releasing music as How To Dress Well for something like six years, but he’s kept his voice obscured, shrouded in flickering fog, buried in audio murk. Even on 2012′s great Total Loss, the moment where he fully and finally stepped away from cultivated mystery, his voice was something of a ghost. But that voice is warm and clear and supple on the new “What Is This Heart?” (The quotation marks are part of the title, even if they look extremely fucking wrong.) The album doesn’t entirely do away with the vocal effects that Krell loves, but while he’ll occasionally transform himself into a reverb-spectre or a screwed-up ghoul, those moments are in there for contrast, for effect. Most of the time, the music parts and fades to the back when his voice comes in, and that voice comes out sounding sounds stark and intimate. It’s not a fluid and instinctive R&B voice, exactly; Krell is not Maxwell. And he’s also not a Justin Vernon, using some idiosyncratic internal vocal scale to send his voice into weird and expressive falsetto flights that seem to invent their own melodic language. Instead, he’s somewhere between those two poles, riffing on soul and gospel styles but also unafraid to go into impressionistic just-off melodic territory. And that voice isn’t the only thing Krell has revealed to the world. “What Is This Heart?” is easily the most emotionally naked, profoundly beautiful collection of music he’s yet given us, and the effect of hearing his voice like that only drives these songs further home. He’s got things he wants to say, and he’s not hiding anything this time.

At this point, it doesn’t make much sense to consider Krell as an indie-R&B singer, though he’s a big part of the reason that indie rock websites are now posting R&B songs from time to time. Musically, the Krell of 2014 has basically nothing to do with, I don’t know, Trey Songz. His music is a warm and clean and spacious take on introverted bedroom-pop. Vocally, though, Krell does operate, to some extent, within the genre. His is a creamy tenor that wobbles and dips and goes into tiny little flights of melisma — never enough to show off, exactly, but enough to let you know that he could show off. There are moments on “What Is This Heart?” where Krell sounds a bit like the Weeknd, or like The-Dream. Krell isn’t using that style to make a statement about music; he’s just using it because it works as a tool of expression. And what he’s expressing is markedly different than what those guys tend to sing about. In this Pitchfork story, Krell mentions loving Miguel but wanting his music to be about “holier” things than “How Many Drinks?,” and he’s already taken some shit for that sentiment. But really, it’s not that Krell’s music is about holier things. It’s just about different things, things more complicated and confused than lust or heartbreak or basic romantic sentiment.

There’s a lot of relationship-talk on “What Is This Heart?”, but it’s tangled and convoluted relationship-talk, talk about the way a weird dissatisfaction can creep into even a happy relationship. Here’s how he puts it on “What You Wanted”: “Every time I see some proof I’m caught, I want the wonder back / I want the chase, I want that lack.” On “Repeat Pleasure,” it’s the same thing: “If you want it once, you’ll want it more, baby / But Once you got it, you’ll need something else / Even if you’re holding on for something unchanging / Once you got it, you’ll want something else.” Krell knows that’s a stupid and self-destructive urge, but he also thinks there’s good to be gained from talking it out, from trying to get to the bottom of how he’s feeling. Krell has recently mentioned Smog and early-’00s emo bands as influential figures, and the way he tries to musically work through that sort of romantic confusion has more to do with the way those guys talk about love than, say, the way R. Kelly (a guy whose music Krell has covered) does. He’s also a PhD student in philosophy, and he has that philosophy student’s way of trying to detach long enough to work through his intense personal bullshit. On “Precious Love,” he’s getting hung up on the very idea of love, on the possibility of personal connection: “What would it mean to relate? To relate, to really relate? / When all the symptoms frustrate?” But all that internal struggle pays off, toward the end of the album, when he finally gives in to actual love on “Very Best Friend,” repeating “I love you” and “I need you” over and over, asking a girl to have his baby. It all ultimately means more because we’ve seen him struggling through it.

There’s struggle and breakthrough all over “What Is This Heart?”, and not all of it is romantic. Krell has two older twin brothers who both have Asperger syndrome, and opening track “2 Years On (Shame Dream)” is all about them, and about the constant wrenching bitterness of watching a loved one struggle with a disability, a feeling you already know if you have people with disabilities in your family. Krell starts out singing about a silent car trip, about watching his mother watch the two of them, everyone knowing that these brothers want to do things they can never do. He ends up with this: “There’s no design, no God / Just the future and my mother’s broken heart.” But on “A Power,” while he never gives into the idea that there’s a divine design, he does yearn to feel his soul floating up into the air when he dies: “I want to close my eyes knowing I saw this rock teeming with life and float off to the void at the top of the sky / Knowing that I loved and lost in all directions and that I lived to the highest of the highest.”

Krell sounds perfectly serene and quiet and childlike while he’s singing all of this, and that’s a tribute to his craft as much as it is to his depth of emotion. Musically, “What Is This Heart?” is glassy and gorgeous and just enormously satisfying. Some of the credit probably belongs to producer Rodaidh McDonald, a man who knows how to use restraint and negative space to create huge, cathartic musical moments. We need to start talking about McDonald the same way we talk about Ariel Rechtshaid, and maybe we already would be doing that if his first name were easier to spell or pronounce. McDonald also produced Total Loss for Krell, and he worked on both of the xx’s albums, on Savages’ Silence Yourself, on King Krule’s 6 Feet Beneath The Moon, and on a ton of other things. He’s a master at layering some sounds and stripping others away, at creating something that sounds vast and epic while using the smallest possible level of clutter. In that sense, “What Is This Heart?” might be his masterpiece, as well as Krell’s. A song like “Words I Don’t Remember” will open with just muted synth chords and Krell’s voice, and it’ll build up confidently and resolutely, into a storm of sounds — heavily processed guitars, electronic drums, voices layered into quilts — without losing the basic melodic thread it established way back at the beginning. “Pour Cyril” has a sad, windblown string arrangement that just kills me. “A Power” has a house-music thump to it, but it never overdoes its pulse, and it keeps it surrounded with echoing, tactile pianos. “Repeat Pleasure” is mid-’80s Janet Jackson heard through a Beach House filter.

There are also these little touches that just tickle at your memory. “Precious Love” is a heart-stoppingly beautiful song on its own, but when you factor in the way it uses a sample of late-’80s telephone hold music, there’s a play of associations at work too. “See You Fall” seems to sample the string-scrapes and guitar-drones from the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” using them in ways that just subtly linger around the edges of the song. There are probably little touches in there that I don’t recognize, or that I haven’t picked out yet. And even though it’s a huge album, drowning in big ideas and shattered feelings, you don’t have to think hard about it to enjoy it. Lately, it’s been the album I listen to when I can’t decide what to listen to, and heard on half-decent speakers, it tends to transform whatever setting you’re hearing it in. Cleaning my house this past weekend became a grand emotional adventure while it was playing, and its sounds are simple and beautiful enough to sound great on road trips or in the background when you’ve got friends over. I haven’t been living with the album for too long, but it’s already woven itself into my life. Give it a chance to weave itself into yours, too; it’s one of the best albums of the year.

“What Is This Heart?” is out now on Weird World. Stream it here.

Other albums of note out today:

• Total Control’s tough, assured, generally badass postpunker Typical System.
• Strand Of Oaks’ durable and intense roots-rocker Heal.
• A Sunny Day In Glasgow’s giddy shoegaze celebration Sea When Absent.
• Mastodon’s vast but unpretentious Once More ’Round The Sun.
• Riff Raff’s joyously goofy Neon Icon.
• Ab-Soul’s messy and nerve-jangled These Days…
• Walkmen member Peter Martin Bauer’s solo debut Liberation!
• Black Bananas’ zooted pop-music bugout Electric Brick Wall.
• Secret Cities’ sharp and punchy indie-popper Walk Me Home.
• Circulatory System’s psychedelic double album Mosaics Within Mosaics.
• People Get Ready’s tricky, adventurous indie-popper Physiques.
• Alraune’s grandly cathartic black metal debut The Process Of Self-Immolation.
• Incantation’s technical death metal barnstormer Dirges Of Elysium.
• Corrosion Of Conformity’s sludge wallow IX.
• Phish’s you-already-know-if-you-care-about-this Fuego.
• Mournful Congregation’s Concrescence Of The Sophia EP.
• SLAVVE’s self-titled EP.
• The Midnight Hollow’s self-titled EP.

Comments (33)
  1. I gotta give it to Strand of Oaks, that album is phenomenal. Probably in my top 5 of the year so far.

    • Agreed. I’ve had it on repeat since I stepped into work this morning. It’s fantastic.

      Another one I’m excited to check out on my way home – that wasn’t mentioned in the list above – is Kitten’s self-titled debut. I caught them on Charli XCX’s tour last fall and have been keeping my eye on them ever since.

    • That record is amazing. It’s some muscular, muscular folk rock. “JM” might just be one of the year’s best tracks.

  2. Great write-up. Great as this is though, I think I’m leaning more towards A Sunny Day in Glasgow for this week’s top release.

  3. Speaking of “you-already-know-if-you-care-about-this”, Bubba Sparxxx also has a new album out today, only eight months after his last one (guess he’s making up for lost time!). Haven’t heard it yet, but I thought Pain Management was pretty great, so I have high hopes for this one too.

  4. Manu Ginobli really on fire right now.

  5. Mastodon.

  6. RiFF RAFF

    • I’ve changed my mind, I think HDTW deserves it. I wish one or the other would get a premature evaluation though.

  7. I didn’t know where else to put this, but here it goes: I’m surprised nobody has mentioned School of Seven Bells’ new song (well, new cover of a Johnny Ramone song). It’s the last song Benjamin Curtis worked on (apparently he literally worked on it in his hospital bed), and I think it’s fantastic. It gives me chills, and it’s good to hear Alejandra Deheza again.

    Given the amount of coverage Curtis’ passing received around the music internets, the lack of coverage is surprising to me.

  8. yes, but Mastodon

  9. I know this a dumb comment, but whatever. I really don’t like this guy’s face for some reason.

  10. MASTODON

  11. ‘from time to time’ means constantly?

  12. really sincere review and along with the cover story on pitchfork I’m a little embarrassed that Ive read so much about this album but haven’t listened to it yet. Tonight will probably be reserved for that. That Strand Of Oaks album just hit me so hard especially after I read about how much of a Jason Molina fan he is and even dedicating the song “JM” to him. Needless to say that’s my current pick of the week and it reminds me a lot of the same themes and styles found in Lost In Dream. “Goshen 97″ might be my favorite opening track of the year (I’m probably just lost over its initial spell) and just reading about how much of his soul he poured into the album really makes me like it more. I can tell just by listening to it that its as bare bones as songwriting can get and the roots rock within in each song, as well as the experimental pop structures he fools around with, make the album really relatable to a guy who spends his time thinking all you need to succeed in the music business is heart. And hes got heart.

    Now that’s not to discredit HTDW because its obvious the man is a genius. Also I love reading about people’s obsessions with different bands and its really cool to see that he likes Smog because that’s a name I just don’t hear often enough these days. And while that pitchfork cover story is a bit lengthy it was really inspiring to read about him and just how damn smart he is about the world going on around him and the world inside him.

  13. A Power. What a song.

  14. I was a little surprised by the overall critical response to this album (‘cept for Stereogum and Pitchfork of course). But after I listened to the album I kind of understand. To me at first it seemed HTDW sacrificed alot of the ambience/atmosphere for pop. With that said the majority of these pop songs are quite good and if you let it the album can be a very bare, emotional experience.

    Just bought A Sunny Day in Glasglow and Strand of Oaks on impulse I’m excited to check them out (never heard of them b4).

  15. Spent Sunday night laying awake during a thunderstorm with this album on loop. He can say he wants to make holier music all he wants because HOLY FUCK!

    This is the only choice for AOTW. “Total Loss” didn’t get enough credit because it’s the only way to logically explain how he went from “Love Remains” to “”What Is This Heart?”". Tom Krell has gotten REALLY good at making music.

    “Words I Don’t Remember” is a perfect centerpiece, arguably a masterpiece. “Childhood Faith In Love (Everything Must Change, Everything Must Stay The Same)” pulls off having a head-turning title by being an eye-popping show stopper. “Very Best Friend” is already on my Best Penultimate Tracks of 2014 list in the future. Speaking of the future, “House Inside (Future Is Older Than The Past)” is the best closing track HTDW’s has ever done, and one of the better closing tracks I’m likely to hear this year.

    This album deserves the praise. Can’t wait to see the final part in those trilogy videos. REALLY want to see him live again. It’s tough to pull off an album over 50 minutes. You do it by having a plethora of essential tracks, which is the case here. So many tracks worth pointing out, but it’s his best album to date without a doubt.

  16. One of the best albums of the year to these ears. And I’m glad you heard that Velvet Underground riffage on “See You Fall” too. I was thinking “Pale Blue Eyes” but “Heroin” is there, too! Just a stunning collection of songs, and track for track it’s up there with The War on Drugs and St. Vincent for me.

  17. jloo  |   Posted on Jun 25th +1

    As a vocalist I’m continuously amazed by Tom Krell. I would say that, although as a whole I have not quite been able to get “into” his music, there are a number of songs of his that I absolutely love. In particular, I *adore* his cover of Elite Gymnastics’ “Here in Heaven.” It frequently makes me tear up when I hear it, especially at that moment of utter genius at the end where he interpolates the “Whoah-oh-oh”s of Alicia Keys’ “No One” totally out of the blue. “& It Was U” is pretty fantastic, too. Did not BELIEVE it when I read that “Cold Nites” was a Forest Swords production—that was one of my faves from Total Loss and I love Forest Swords. I haven’t quite been able to get as into Love Remains though, sadly.

    However, I’m still coasting on my latest paycheck and I have a good feeling I’ll be purchasing “WITH?” soon enough. Everything I’ve heard so far, “Words I Don’t Remember” especially, has been incredible.

    Having not listened to it yet, then, my personal AotW has to be Bassnectar’s Noise vs. Beauty. If thoroughly enjoying this album makes me a festy-bro, then I’m glad to be one. In particular “Now” (I’ll take any excuse I get to listen to Rye Rye!) and “Ephemeral” are dope as HELL.

  18. It’s 4 AM and I’m finally getting around to listening to this. It’s exceptional 4 AM music and I’m very happy with the progression to this from Total Loss (which was already so wonderful).

  19. I’ve really been digging Peter Matthew Bauer’s Liberation! Then again, I think this has been a very straight up rock n roll year for me (cue air guitar motions).

  20. Tom, there was one major omission from the albums list this week; GusGus just released “Mexico” on Kompakt and it is fantastic.

  21. That Strand of Oaks album is really fantastic. I’ve been giving it some time based on everyone recommending it. Its got a lot of Neil Young’s rusty style, and damn if HEAL isn’t a mirror sound to Greg Kihn Band! (I know, weird) Either way it’s got an 80′s rock vibe

    I can’t buy into HTDW…many throw genius around but I think its a bunch of smoke and mirrors. I feel like he’s overacting. Much apology for those who dig. I really want to like him, but about halfway though, I feel like telling him to stop being so dramatic.

  22. I could never really get into this guy’s previous music or see what all the hype was about (guess I’ve just been overexposed on soft Indie falsetto guys). Gave this a try and track 1 kind of made me think my opinion wasn’t going to change, but I found myself intrigued enough as it kept going to keep listening and then… HOLY FUCK… Very Best Friend has me grooving the fuck out!!

  23. I can’t help but try and give a good listen to any album Pitchfork or Stereogum gushes about and this is no exception. I still haven’t gotten into it yet, but I’m hoping that I will. Albums like this always seem to take a few listens to really enjoy. If you like it and are thinking of purchasing it looks to be cheapest on 7digital by $3 at $6.99:

    http://mp3pricecomparison.com/SearchResults/SelectResult/0?upc=848453602&TypeOfRequest=album

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