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Review: How to Dress Well, “What Is This Heart?”

Words by Scenewave Australia - Published on June 30, 2014

I used to swear by the NME. The legendary British trend-making music magazine provided me with a fair chunk of the bands now sitting comfortably on my iPod. Unfortunately, the more I’ve become more interested in music, the more I’ve become disillusioned by the NME’s tendency to blatantly favour bands it wants to be the “new big thing”, often over bands more deserving. The final straw arrived in that 10/10 review of Arctic Monkey’s AM which caused me to vomit into my cornflakes. Now, it’s not good form to rely on commentary of the reviews of other music publications when writing one’s own review, but after seeing that the NME gave How to Dress Well’s (aka Tom Krell) new release, “What Is This Heart?” a 5/10, I felt the need to explain why I disagree so strongly.

The NME review, with respect, basically says “What Is This Heart?” is only good Tom Krell “tranquilises his inner Usher” in order to “achieve the subtlety and invention of … Sufjan Stevens”. It seemed desperate to lump Krell in with those artists generally mentioned in the same sentence as he – Miguel, The Weeknd, James Blake and so on, and so on. It isn’t new, and Krell himself wouldn’t be surprised at being pigeonholed as an “Alt R&B” or “Chilltronica” artist.

And in this, “What Is the Heart?” is the failure of the NME review and the unabashed success of Krell. These tracks, while perhaps less musically widescreen than those found on 2012’s Total Loss, are far broader in scope lyrically and thematically. Sure, it’s still luscious, royally instrumented baby-making music, but if you listen to it somewhere other than the bedroom, it’s a lot more than that. Plenty of weight has always been given to Tom Krell’s motives behind his How To Dress Well albums. Yeah, he’s a philosophy major, which earns him criticism for being overly obsessed with trying to sound “intellectual”. This is music that makes you feel things. It is, absolutely, a mish-mash of emotions, ranging on the spectrum from nihilistic to the most joyous the genre has to offer (see: the oh-so-brief key change at the end of Precious Love).

The album begins with 2 Years On (Shame Dream), which sees Krell (literally) giving a redux of his previous albums, ruminating about family, love and death, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar. It’s an anti-climactic opener that reminds me of how Earthquake began Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest album; not with a bang, but with an (albeit beautiful) whisper.

Krell has said he wanted “WITH?” to have the same sonic intricacy as Yeezus. It does. In particular, the paranoiac manipulated vocals and ominous atmospheres on Face Again sound directly inspired from the darker moments of Kanye’s last album. Face Again’s darker, bipolar sound seems like what Abel Tesfaye was aiming for on The Weeknd’s Kiss Land, released last year.

Repeat Pleasure and Words I Don’t Remember, the album’s two best singles, are placed in pinch-hitting roles right in the album’s middle. The latter works around a wonderfully chilly synth and eventually builds layer upon layer to anearth-shattering climax. Admittedly, as “WITH?” approaches its end, the album loses a little of its steam in songs like A Power and Very Best Friend. But all is forgiven when the closer, House Inside, comes around. The all-encompassing production makes it sound like a heavenly army of Krells singing in unison, and ends with Krell reflecting that after everything, despite all the suicidal thoughts and despair, the world really is a pretty thing.

Despite what the NME would have you believe, “WITH?” is intriguing and groundbreaking because it treads the line between “Usher” R&B and “Alt” R&B. I can’t think of one artist able to so artfully jump between wide-eyed childish wonder and desperate, dark contemplations about suicide in the space of one album. The scope and ambition on this album is something to be marvelled at, rather than persecuted. So what if Childhood Faith in Love indulges in joy like nothing on Channel Orange did? So what if you can hear Whitney Houston when Krell sings (in his highest pitch) “Even broken my heart will go on!”? Hell, maybe I should, but I don’t even feel guilty about enjoying this repeat pleasure. Have some fun, NME.

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