How To Dress Well’s “What Is This Heart?” Had A Spectacular Live Debut

Last night in New York City, Tom Krell debuted most of the songs from “What Is This Heart?”, the highly anticipated third album of his influential experimental R&B project How To Dress Well. Yet the most significant moment of the evening came from a throwback to one of the earliest songs of his career. Krell took a moment to perform what he called his favorite song of his to sing: “Suicide Dream 1.” It was written, he explained, in the aftermath of a close friend’s death, but these days singing it fills him with joy, something he never thought he would feel four years ago. When we heard that song back in its original form, Krell’s project was shrouded in mystery, musically murky and lyrically indecipherable. The small crowd who showed up at the Slipper Room in downtown Manhattan, however, heard something completely different.

They heard arrangements as clear and fragile as crystal. They heard the lyrics which in their personal detail and vulnerability reveal an entire world of pain, confusion, grief, and love. What they heard most of all was Krell, with almost no music backing him as he sang into the pair of microphones, one in each hand. In the final moments he pushed the mics apart, walking in between the tilted stands, arms splayed out like a crucifixion and sang out, his voice projecting itself out over the stunned crowd. That moment, tucked between new songs that make up some of the most emotionally devastating music of the year, showed why in 2014 it feels like we’re really hearing Tom Krell for the first time.

When “What Is This Heart?” was first announced, the album cover was glaring in its directness — an intense close-up of Krell’s entire face, tears welling in his eyes. The music is as jarring as that photo. You feel it on every end of the spectrum too, both in the lonely moments found in “2 Years On (Shame Dream),” with only a gently plucked guitar to accompany painful familial memories, and in the massive bass-quaking peaks of songs like “A Power,” “Childhood Faith In Love,” and the previously released “Face Again.” On that last one Krell begs, “Just kiss me on my face again and tell me what love is supposed to be,” lashes out “I don’t think you know what’s best for me,” confesses “I don’t even know what’s best for me.” By the latter he’s screaming it.

“Face Again” is a love song, like many on the album, tortured by a void of miscommunication. In the Lower East Club last night, that came across musically as Krell ended lines by pulling the mic quickly away from his face, sounding as if his voice had been sucked away abruptly in some vacuum. It all works due to his band’s impeccable sound design, and where there was once an artist singing love songs in a lo-fi warp, these are focused songs about the lack of clarity in love itself. Throughout the performance one could catch Krell grinning from hearing every change-up hitting the audience just right. There were fewer musicians on stage than I remember seeing from my last How To Dress Well performance in 2011, but the three in this lineup take the new album, which sounds like it has been slaved over in a studio, and reproduce it all live. They craft a physical, body shaking experience, and on songs like the glimmer of light “Very Best Friend,” even dance music. But his performance takes it to a different level completely. The songs that feel like conversations actually look like conversations as you see Krell physically reacting to what he’s singing, building a logical emotional progression to shouted moments of existential clarity.

Leaving this event, it occurred to me that the show may be one of the last of its kind. Next fall How To Dress Well will come back for a concert at the much larger Irving Plaza, and Krell will be someone who made one of the best albums of the year. But it’s “Suicide Dream I” that sticks most, because as much as this show was about playing the new album, it was more about witnessing a metamorphosis and redefinition of everything How To Dress Well have been over the years.

06/13 London, England – ICA (SOLD OUT)
06/14 Brussels, Belgium – Beursschouwburg
06/16 Paris, France – Nouveau Casino
06/17 Amsterdam, Netherlands – MC Theatre
06/29 Berlin, Germany – Berliner Festspiele
08/21 San Diego, CA – Casbah
08/22 Los Angeles, CA – First Unitarian Church
08/23 Monterey, CA – First City Festival
08/24 Monterey, CA – First City Festival
08/25 Portland, OR – Holocene
08/26 Vancouver, British Columbia – Fortune Sound Club
08/27 Seattle, WA – Neumos
08/29 Salt Lake City, UT – Urban Lounge
09/02 Omaha, NE – Waiting Room
09/03 Minneapolis, MN – Triple Rock Social Club
09/04 Chicago, IL – Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA)
09/04-06 Raleigh, NC – Hopscotch Music Festival
09/05 Louisville, KY – Headliners Music Hall
09/08 Atlanta, GA – Terminal West
09/09 Nashville, TN – Exit In
09/11 Columbus, OH – A&R Music Bar
09/12 Toronto, Ontario – The Mod Club
09/14 Montreal, Quebec – Le Belmont
09/16 Boston, MA – Brighton Music Hall
09/17 New York City, NY – Irving Plaza
09/19 Philadelphia, PA – District N9NE
09/20 Washington, DC – U Street Music Hall
09/22 St. Louis, MO – The Luminary Center for the Arts
09/24 Oxford, MS – Proud Larry’s
09/25 New Orleans, LA – Hi Ho Lounge
09/27 Austin, TX – Central Presbyterian Church

“What Is This Heart?” is out 6/24 on Weird World.

[Photos by wagz2it.]