Review: How To Dress Well, "What Is This Heart?"

On <i>"What Is This Heart?", Tom Krell steps out of the shadows, with his heart proudly on his sleeve.
How To Dress Well What Is This Heart

opinion bySAMUEL TOLZMANN < @scatlint >

“And I know I can be extra-sentimental. / Yeah, it’s dumb, but sometimes, it’s just right. / And I could say it smarter, but I want it gentle.” That’s Tom Krell getting defensive (and meta) on us during “Very Best Friend,” the penultimate track from How To Dress Well’s third full-length, “What Is This Heart?”  It’s a canny counterargument to criticisms Krell anticipates being thrown his way now that the album is out. After all, 2010’s Love Remains drew widespread praise for truncated, melancholic R&B songs drowned in so much reverb they seemed composed entirely of echoes, songs that were deeply moving but often unintelligible. All the material How To Dress Well has released since has cleaned up Krell’s sound and exposed the piercing stare of a disarmingly direct singer-songwriter. Listeners inadvertently acclimated to irony would be forgiven for suspecting Krell of being manipulative – say, during the gorgeous, string-swathed Just Once EP (an elegy for a friend who’d passed away, no less) or the litany of apologies Krell offers up on “Set It Right,” from somnambulant, sterile sophomore slump Total Loss. The easier he is to understand, and the more familiar the elements of his compositions, the more How To Dress Well risks a certain kind of negative feedback: that it sounds toothless, cheesy, maudlin. One needn’t have read Ryan Dombal’s feature on Krell for Pitchfork to pick up on the thread that ties How To Dress Well to the early-aughts Warped Tour pop-punk he loved as a teen: a shameless commitment to the idea that if a feeling is experienced, then it’s valid, and if a feeling is valid, then it should be expressed. In three lines, Krell states his terms–he could be “smart,” but wants to be “gentle” (“Just save the rest for tonight,” he slyly adds)–and his premise, that extra-sentimentality is “dumb, but sometimes, it’s “just right.”

To wit: single “Repeat Pleasure” illustrates a shocked epiphany–erotic desire is inherently selfish, insatiable, and incomprehensible!–with a platitude pilfered from Celine Dion’s theme for Titanic: “Even broken, my heart will go on.” Or, even better: album highlight “Precious Love” samples the cheap synth tones of that infamous, ubiquitous, maddeningly pleasant Cisco call-center hold music. Both of these songs flirt with cliché, but they flirt proudly. “Repeat Pleasure”’s Dion reference may seem sappy, but cut through the baggage of its Kate-and-Leo evocations and it’s nothing but a simple fact–Krell’s heart will, indeed, go on–punctuating a song that’s all about how so-called simple facts have seismic moral and behavioral implications. “Precious Love” spins that smooth, naggingly familiar hold music into an expansive, sparkling pop song that starts out as a tickle to the memory but then, as more and more elements are added to the mix, transcends its highly specific and plainly obvious pop-cultural reference to become something arrestingly beautiful in its own right. In both of these instances, Krell breaks down the cliché to its constituent parts: the text and the context, the cliché itself and its tedious history of repeated formulaic usage. It’s easy to see how that history can stifle the resonance of the original truth. Or, to put it another way, “It’s hard to see how much of our social fabric is made up of a radical refusal to love people,” as Krell told Dombal, veering awfully close to another worthwhile cliché (Jesus Christ’s, this time). This explains why so much of “What Is This Heart?” is devoted to calling us out on the disdain we experience when we’re confronted with a stock turn of phrase, or sound, or idea, or emotion, and to illuminating the still-living truth underneath all that dead weight and knee-jerk scorn.

When he admits, “I could say it smarter, but I want it gentle,” this is (part of) what Krell means: that he, a doctoral candidate in philosophy, could easily slip into the kind of sophisticated, irony-tinged discourse or poetic lyricism his audience is more prepared to value as “meaningful” (or “beautiful”– smart,” after all, means not only “intelligent” but also “presentable,” as in “to dress smartly”). But he doesn’t. Those three lines from “Very Best Friend” aren’t uttered until more than forty-five minutes of How To Dress Well’s extra-sentimental gentleness have passed, including another verse from “Very Best Friend” that begins, “I love you, I love you, knew from the moment that I first saw you, girl.” The listener to whom the rebuttal about sentimentality is addressed probably won’t make it so deep into the record. To indulge a cliché myself, the best defense is, of course, a good offense. In the line “And I could say it smarter, but I want it gentle,” the direct object, “it,” doesn’t change between clauses. This is crucial, because “it” isn’t just some abstract placeholder – it’s Krell’s subject matter, whatever he’s trying to say. Another idea this line subtly puts forth is that “it” might actually be better­ articulated in “smarter” terms, but that those terms can sometimes be at odds with health and happiness, and that such articulation isn’t always worth that risk. “Smart,” remember, has a third meaning: “intelligent” or “presentable,” yes, but also “to hurt,” as in, “his cheek smarted where he’d been slapped.” And though we’re accustomed to a narrow range of Hallmark possibilities, “sentimental” actually designates mode alone, not content: throughout “What Is This Heart?”,Krell may communicate in a way that seems overwrought or mushy, but that doesn’t mean he’s not singing about growing up in a house rocked by multiple kinds of mental illness (“2 Years On [Shame Dream]”), abortion and miscarriage (“See You Fall”), or fucked-up relationship dynamics, or the lightless, paralyzing sensation of grief. Krell’s ultimate interest is in connecting rather than distancing, in lessons learned instead of meaningless corporal punishment, in being direct instead of convoluted or elusive, “gentle” rather than “smart.” And I’m not really buying it when Krell calls himself “dumb,” since, as he goes on to argue, his sentimentality and gentleness are sometimes (warm, effective, honest, beautiful, generous) “just right.”

As nice as it would be to spend all day parsing a handful of lyrics, it’s important to note that the principal way Krell argues for the enduring artistic viability of the sentimental cliché is by delivering those ideas in a richly varied range of musical trappings. Compared to the tedious Total Loss, done in by consistently plodding tempos and an icily ascetic atmosphere, the new material (produced by Rodaidh McDonald) is much more dynamic and is in audible conversation with Krell’s peers all around the pop landscape. I don’t really mean the Celine Dion reference or the Cisco sample, but instead things like the album’s acknowledgement of R&B as a genre comprising distinct formal properties, thematic foci, artistic personalities, religious roots, and carnal reality as opposed to simply an ahistorical and nearly asexual vocal style (which was how Krell unfortunately presented it on earlier releases). For example, it’s hard to imagine the “You’re my baby” hook from “Very Best Friend” being sold or even sung at all by the choirboy Krell of Total Loss. I mean things like the structural looseness that permits the presence of songs like the mostly instrument-free “2 Years On” or the patiently repetitive “A Power.” I mean things like the more diverse instrumentation (guitars both acoustic and electric appear frequently) and the arsenal of bass sounds. I don’t know how much it’s the work of McDonald versus Krell, but either way, “What Is This Heart?” boasts an all-out post-dubstep low end that imbues the record with shadowy physical depths, making the songs feel full and spacious even when it’s not upfront in the mix. That said, the moments when it takes center stage certainly liven up the proceedings significantly–check out the intense build of “A Power,” the evil throb of “Face Again,” the massive wallop of “Words I Don’t Remember,” or the crisply percussive “Very Best Friend,” a piece of low-hanging dancefloor-bait Junior Boys are kicking themselves for not writing first.

Most interesting is the range of effects processes through which Krell runs his voice. It could be argued that digitally manipulated voices are no longer anything to get worked up about, not in the way they were when Kid A or Silent Shout or Untrue dropped, but that would mean ignoring the shockwaves of later records like James Blake or Yeezus, which suggest that there are still ways to jar listeners with twisted vocal textures. On an album so pointedly concerned with honest communication, that goes so far as to open with a harrowing and nearly a cappella number and to close with the mantra, “Yeah, this world is such a pretty thing,” it remains unsettling to hear something like “See You Fall”’s sudden line-ending octave drops, or “Face Again”’s inhumanly deep Karin Dreijer Andersson-like wheezing. Decisions like these don’t take you out of the moment, but they do endanger any sense of stability; they feel truly precarious in context. One of the most plainspoken cuts here, the gorgeous “Words I Don’t Remember,” follows up its first verse with an alarming breakdown of cut-up vocal bleats and blurts. As the section goes on, you can start to make out the original line through all the stutters and pitch-shifts. Krell is, or was, singing, “I love you blind, baby.” Though it never quite comes through crystal-clear, the intensity and sincerity of the underlying emotion manages to bleed through a confusing swirl of altered sounds. On “What Is This Heart?”, it always does. A-