How to Dress Well - What Is This Heart? - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

How to Dress Well - What Is This Heart?

by Rich Morris Rating:5 Release Date:2014-06-23

Tom Krell seems to be on a one-man mission to be a total bummer. That’s not necessarily meant as an insult, although What is This Heart? starts on a distinctly bum-note. Opening number ‘2 Years on (Shame Dream)’ is weepy and miserable without ever really explaining why (something to do with his mum, I think). Worse, its folky, weedy backing and Krell’s soul diva warbling make it sound like something excruciating from an X Factor contestant trying to show their ‘sincerity’.

Thankfully, second track ‘What You Wanted’ gets back to the midnight R&B stylings Krell does so well and is a much better framework for his voice. On heartbreak-heavy but soulful numbers like this, he’s like a version of Sam Smith you don’t want to punch to smithereens.

The following ‘Face Again’ is a nice slice of avant-R&B (Is that a thing? Cos I’m making it a thing). With its pitch-shifted backing vocals and thudding, industrial drums, its closer to The Knife than Beyonce, although it could also just be ‘In the Air Tonight’ by Phil Collins for hipsters. That’s the problem with How to Dress Well and it’s the main problem with this third album.

What is This Heart? could definitely do with more upbeat moments such as ‘Repeat Pleasure’, which sounds across between John Legend and The Postal Service, and features a fantastic Prince-style wail from Krell. The prevalence of downbeat numbers isn’t in itself a problem (‘Words I Can’t Remember’s viscous production and chopped-up vocals, for example, are wonderful), but Krell’s over-sincere, close-to-the-mic simpering makes them all sound a little too uniform.

Unsurprisingly, Krell’s music here revolves around his falsetto voice, but songs such as ‘See You Fall’, with its odd baritone backing vocals, prove that his ability to bring leftfield sounds into mainstream soul songs, or move soul singing into an unusual context, may be his real strength. His voice, though technically impressive, is strangely boneless, lacking light or shade. You get the distinct impression that, if forced to, Krell would sing a Burger King menu in the exact same way he’d sing about being dumped by the love of his life.

The songs are also pretty saccharine and, for all the sonic trickery, surprisingly blatant in their emotional manipulation at points. By the time you get to the all-out orchestral weepathon of ‘Pour Cyril’, over which Krell warbles unrestrainedly, you’ll either be on board or not. The enervating ‘Precious Love’, meanwhile, is like a Dido backing track. Yes, fucking Dido.

There’s no denying that when How to Dress Well first emerged, he had something of a unique sound, a mixture of confessional sincerity with electronica obscurity. Unfortunately, this has been to condensed down to slickly produced, coffee table soul a little too often on this third album.

On penultimate track ‘Very Best Friend’, Krell sings “I know I can be extra sentimental”, which, frankly, is something of an understatement given what’s gone before. However, on the same song he also purrs: “You’re my baby, want you to have it all/ Want you to have my baby, please don’t be appalled”, which is a bloody brilliant lyric whichever way you slice it. Plus it’s one of the album’s best numbers, like something Bjork might do if she ever found her way back to pop.

More moments like this on album four would be very welcome. Another long-player where Krell sounds like Sam Smith for baristas with tattoo sleeves and massive beards would make me cry for all the wrong reasons. 

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