Arguably the hipster R&B scene’s most tortured soul, New Yorker Tom Krell, aka How To Dress Well, delivered one of the most heart-breaking albums of 2012 with Total Loss, a hypnotic series of eulogies which featured everything from a spoken word excerpt from a 1980s documentary about teenage homelessness to the sound of a body splashing into the sea.
The solemn self-portrait which adorns the cover of his third album, What Is This Heart?, suggests that the 29-year-old remains something of an eternal miserablist, as does its opening track, “2 Years On (Shame Dream),” a sparse, self-indulgent and slightly whiny ballad which sees him reflect on various family dramas in his signature confessional style.
Thankfully, What Is This Heart? recovers from its less-than-promising beginnings to show that How To Dress Well’s despair can often inspire mesmerising results. On “Face Again,” he pleads for an answer to a question he’s forgotten over a blend of pitch-shifted vocal loops, eerie synths and echo-laden drums which contains a similar sense of menace to Kanye West’s Yeezus. “What You Wanted” is a similarly warped slice of lo-fi R&B whose a cappella finale exposes Krell’s fragile tones in all their glory. “Pour Cyril,” meanwhile, is a stately symphony which suggests that a sideline in film composing awaits.
Like its predecessor, What Is This Heart? also contains its fair share of weird and wonderful samples, from the inspired use of a certain phone company’s hold music on the gossamer 80s R&B of “Precious Love,” to the guitar drones of The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” that are subtly deployed on the delicate chamber pop of “See You Fall,” to the snippet of Sarah Polley’s autobiographical documentary, Stories We Tell, that crops up amongst the 808 beats and filtered synths of “Very Best Friend.”
Sadly, How To Dress Well’s inventive streak doesn’t always hit the same heights, and while the record’s opener suffered from a lack of ideas, its closing numbers suffer from way too many, with the heavily-cluttered “A Power” and “House Inside (Future Is Older Than The Past)” in particular almost buckling under the weight of their own unorganised chaos.
As he admits himself on the penultimate track, Krell can indeed “be extra sentimental.” But while the emotional turmoil on What Is This Heart? is unlikely to dispel his over-earnest reputation, it often comes equipped with some of the most innovative and beguiling alt-R&B since Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange.