howtodresswell

Tom Krell – the man who, for all intents and purposes, is How to Dress Well – revealed himself to be under no illusion about the primary problem faced by so-called ‘indie R&B’ artists when he gave an interview to The Guardian around the time his breakthrough second LP, ‘Total Loss’, dropped in 2012. He suggested that a lot of his contemporaries were making music “ready to be played in Urban Outfitters”, rather than “experienced in any meaningful way”. Given that no other genre has been quite as de rigueur as this one in the hipster community these past couple of years, it’s a brave move to take such a stance – as if Kasabian tried to ban football supporters from buying their records – and Krell is very much throwing the gauntlet down to himself.

On ‘Total Loss’, he stayed true to his word by creating a record that was not only superficially beautiful, immaculately produced and glacially paced, but was scored through with unrelentingly emotive themes, with constant reference to depression and isolation. It represented a huge step forward, sonically, from his distorted debut, ‘Love Remains’, and any suspicions that he might take another left turn on ‘What Is This Heart?’ are swiftly validated by opener ‘2 Years On (Shame Dream)’. It’s a gentle slow-burner, driven almost entirely by snatches of acoustic guitar and Krell’s signature falsetto, which offers up a far more refined, less melodramatic take on Michael Jackson than, say, The Weeknd.

The major breakthrough that Krell makes on this record is the way in which he uses sonic space; where ‘Total Loss’ often felt claustrophobic, paranoid, even, ‘What Is This Heart?’feels airier, and considerably more open; on the likes of ‘Face Again’ and ‘Pour Cyril’, the vocals are presented in completely clean fashion, with only the faintest backing; a stuttering beat on the former, mournful horns on the latter. There’s evidence of instrumental experimentation, too – ‘Repeat Pleasure’ explodes briefly into a freewheeling electric guitar solo at the midpoint, and violin weaves in and out of ‘See You Fall’’.

It feels like an album of two halves, with the last five tracks playing around with beats and effects more boldly than those preceding it, placing them closer, stylistically, to ‘Total Loss’. ‘Precious Love’’s rattling drum track lends an off-kilter feel to its otherwise straightforward pop structure, and the outstanding ‘A Power’ channels ‘Total Loss’’s appetite for echoed vocals and slick instrumental flourishes; the gradual build to the euphoric last minute or so means it’s as close to anthemic as Krell has yet come.

‘What Is This Heart?’feels less cohesive than ‘Total Loss’, which is a little strange when you consider that Krell largely sticks to one vocal setting throughout. In such unvarnished form, his voice comes to grate a little by the end, although that’s probably just as much to do with the album being a little overlong. As far as creating indie R&B with real meaning goes, though, this is another triumph; a collection of thrillingly modern love songs that carry soul as well as polish.

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