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Jul 21, 2014

How To Dress Well

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"What Is This Heart?"
(Domino / Weird World)

If you want it once, you’ll want it more, baby.
But once you got it you’ll need something else.

There are some records--few and far between certainly (although a number come to mind)--that speak to one’s soul at exactly the right time. Arcade Fire’s Funeral has said effect on me. That being said: most records should be taken as they are. There are supernumerous comparisons to How To Dress Well's newest effort, people making their own record as “they are” and making an awesome record, but if one took the initiative to discuss “What Is This Heart?”  (quotes not added) one would not be wrong is saying that it sounds like a lot of other things: Sufjan Stevens (Illinois), Bon Iver (his name repeated twice on the record), (my personal favorite) Justin Timberlake (dude, he sounds a lot like JT and it's a good thing). Praise be that more people were not named Justin. I digress; I’m ignoring the matter at hand because the matter at hand is hard to talk about: Tom Krell made a record that defies logic. He did it in the pattern of the artists I mentioned above while making a record that none of them could make. It is explosive, dynamic, concise, all while meandering through the troughs and mud pools that tend to stagnate music in the same vein--namely feelings.

This album will draw comparisons fairly easily, as Tom Krell is an artist who is open about his influences. But his concern doesn’t lie in making his own sound--instead it lies in taking the sounds he likes (R. KelZZ and Blood Orange, who are prevalent on this record) and making them better. Aside from this bit of sound I had the privilege to review, I’d only heard of How To Dress Well in the abstract, a short remix that Minneapolis (THAT’S OUR HOMETOWN) electroniteers Elite Gymnastics made that didn’t really showcase Krell’s talent, at least not in the same way that the hollow but gigantic opener “2 Years On” does on his new record. In a vacuum, Krell’s voice calls to mind (for me at least) late 90’s and early 2000’s boy bands/commercialized R&B (think KC and JoJo), without sounding as contrived or as typical as the groups that fit into those genres. This has to do with two things: 1) the way he structures his songs--so coherent, so precise and 2) the fact he’s not singing about “love”, per se, in fact most of this record is about unrequited love and the feelings (FEELINGS) that come along with it. See: “Face Again”--my favorite track on the album--a beautifully constructed song in which Krell’s chorus transforms, the first half he sings, “I don’t think you know what’s best for me...I don’t even know what’s best for me,” and the second half he sings (in the exact same tone): “I really think you know what’s best for me...I don’t even know what’s best for me.” A slight sea change, one of surrender or realization, is what makes this track, and others on the record, so awesome. This couldn’t be late 90’s R&B--there’s too much vulnerability, too much soul, too much failure, too much loss.



“What Is This Heart?” is packed tight with emotions: “2 Years On” calls to mind, on a personal level, my drive home with my mother after I failed to live up to my collegiate expectations in Michigan: a ten hour drive in a Nissan packed to the brim with Target furniture and disappointment. “There was silence in the car.” These songs, and their related FEELINGS (yeah, I’m going to all caps FEELINGS for the remainder of this review) abound on this album, but that’s not to say that there aren’t moments of pleasure (albeit guilty pleasure). “See You Fall” is a prime example of these guilty pleasures; the title of the track itself suggests the sort of adolescent emotions that come along with being heart-broken, loathing yourself, and hoping for the worst for the person who broke your heart. Even the upbeat tracks, like “Repeat Pleasure” and “Words I Don’t Remember”, are relentless exercises in melancholy, but they remain “playable” (unlike other records that have a similar tone: The Weeknd’s Thursday is only really “playable” if you’re reading John Berryman on the Washington Avenue bridge) and they remain enjoyable.

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“Words I Don’t Remember” has an amazing breakdown that’s more like Krell’s earlier work in How To Dress Well, vocally effected loops that find Krell singing, “I love you,” in tones that range from the soulful (his actual voice is beaucoup de soulful) to the robotic, perhaps suggesting the varying modes of love that consume a person--love on every level. Sonically, this album is picturesque; the music always fits perfectly with the lyrics and nothing seems out of place at any point: airy synths and extremely tight drums (with the occasional explosive outlier) are prevalent, but the main instrument on the album is Krell’s voice. Tracks like “Pour Cyril” and “House Inside” are prime examples of this: on these tracks it sounds like Krell laid down the vocals first and then filled them in with drums and synths that were, in turn, based on the lyrics (as I understand it, this is not how these records usually come together).

I also can’t get over “A Very Best Friend.” Because it really sounds like it should have come off that Justin Timberlake record that had that song about having your toes in the sand (T.I. was on the track, due to time constraints and the fact they shut my internet off last week I’m not going to Google it). Whenever I hear it, strangely, I don’t picture Krell singing it--I see a curly headed and footworking Justin Timberlake performing it on Late Night television, back-up dancers sweating in his wake. That thought gives me a lot of pleasure. Even the lyrics, which seem so adolescent (I say seem because that would be a facile analysis)--”You will always be my very best friend”--sound like something Timberlake would jot down in whatever thousand dollar moleskin he probably uses to write his songs. All of these thoughts make me realize how much I appreciate Justin Timberlake and his (highly-likely) influence on Tom Krell. But I digress (again).

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There is no “message” to take away from this album. It explores expansive emotions--namely heartbreak--without straying far from its thesis, which I maintain is “Face Again,” though some people may disagree, opting for other opuses like “What You Wanted” or “Words I Don’t Remember.” But having a “thesis” or central track isn’t Krell’s concern, as “What Is This Heart?” is a portrait of unity--concise and discursive simultaneously, bitter, forlorn, and hopeful (for hope see “House Inside”) all at the same time--and it doesn’t need to have a shining star, a central track, or a “if you want to know about this album listen to this song” banger; because this is an album about FEELINGS. And that's exactly what makes it so brilliant.

Sam Howard