It’s no secret we fangirl a little bit over How To Dress Well, especially after last week’s flawless live performance in London. As we mentioned in that review, Tom Krell’s evolution has been a joy to watch. Debut album Love Remains – like its torch-lit cover – contained songs for the dead of night, almost mired in shame. The sound reflected this, with Krell shrouding his lyrics in reverb and crackle as if lacking the confidence to completely bare his soul and air his talent.
Follow-up Total Loss explored this a bit further, with Krell slowly emerging from the shadows and owning his material with more confidence. If those two albums were the dipping of toes in the water, then “What Is This Heart?” feels like a headfirst dive into the realms of crossover-pop (of course, enlisting super-xx-producer Rodaidh McDonald would probably help that).
It’s pretty apparent from the title that this is an album that demands an emotional answer. From the slow piano opening and Krell’s singer/songwriter moment on 2 Years On (Shame Dream), this is a man baring every deep thought and insecurity, as naked and raw as his face on the album cover. This is a man who won’t hesitate to cut out some deep bass licks for an a cappella moment on What You Wanted, if that’s what a song demands (though he’s one of the few artistes whose voice could carry such a thing).
While his peers are losing their breath trying to catch up on the experimental R&B ground he laid down with two previous albums, Krell does an about face here and proves he can do straight pop or emo-acoustic, taking more of a note from Sufjan Stevens than R. Kelly. Precious Fall is an obvious throwback to old-school pop-rock, See You Fall toys with piano melodies to deliver alternative wonder, while Face Again (despite sounding like something Cher would say to her surgeon) sits comfortably as a single alongside the ever-excellent Repeat Pleasure and Words I Don’t Remember.
Is there a downside? Certainly not in theme – there’s always self-reflection with Krell, how he looks at himself, how he can improve himself in the context of the human soul’s vagaries, rather than projecting his anger to the world. But for people who fell in love with the fragility of Suicide Dream 2 or the searing heart of Cold Nites, the closest we get to something that moving is in Pour Cyril, a sweeping orchestral piece driven by that inimitable falsetto.
There is an argument that “What Is This Heart?” is a bit too loud for the delicate side of How To Dress Well, and for an album that puts our human core on its sleeve, it could do with a lot more of it. That being said, there’s no taking away from how important this record is for both Tom Krell’s immediate body of work and his wider impact. In an interview this week, Krell said that he thinks it’s madness that Kanye‘s 808s & Heartbreak isn’t recognised as one of the most influential albums of the decade. He’s partly right, but the same can be applied to How to Dress Well. If this trilogy of deeply affecting music isn’t seen as ground-breaking, and Krell not a visionary, we wouldn’t see a travesty bigger than that.