Album Of The Week: 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.
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.