A look into Tom Krell’s beautiful, brooding heart.
R&B has acquired a rather off-putting reputation in recent times; song structuring has been stripped down to very basic bridge-chorus arrangements and many a vocalist have been neutered by oppressive production values. Consider Sam Smith, his potential, and his recent lackluster release. What Is This Heart?, Tom Krell’s third full-length as How to Dress Well, is a totally different kind of stripped down; while his music has always been minimalist to showcase his impressive songwriting strength, What Is This Heart? benefits from more robust production, feeling much more alive as a result. It’s an intelligently constructed effort that swims in hazy emotion. Many comparisons will be drawn between this album and others, such as Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange and James Blake’s Overgrown, and they are not without merit.
This brand of moody, soulful music has been done before, but Krell manages to make it sound fresh with a variety of ideas. Acoustic guitar, piano, synth-soaked strings, and even an electric guitar solo can be found on the album, and while this might seem like a hodgepodge of very different textures, Krell makes it work by not overdoing it on any front. Even though the focus of this album is undoubtedly on his vocal performance, he hits the right notes with everything else too, using instruments to sustain emotion or to add yet more layers of memorable melody. “2 Years On” and “Repeat Pleasure” are extremely different tracks, one being a very subdued slow track, the other being a beat-driven cacophony. And it makes sense; you need to keep your listener’s attention by switching things up. Krell manages to do this so consistently well that the whole album flows impressively, sustaining itself over a rather long runtime despite being more modest-sounding than similar pop affairs. He isn’t afraid to draw things out and play with tension, nor is he afraid to unleash his prominent pop sensibilities to buffer the slower tracks.
What Is This Heart? is rich in its stark, bare-bones emotion, offering earworm after earworm to whoever cares to sift through its contents. Every single song is polished and tweaked to stand strong on its own, while still allowing the cumulative product to be called ‘cohesive’. At its core, it’s a pleasant, accessible collection of some of this year’s most well thought-out pop songs. This is the new centerpiece of Tom Krell’s discography, and possibly his entire career so far.
2 Years On (Shame Dream), What You Wanted, See You Fall, Repeat Pleasure, Words I Don’t Remember, Pour Cyril, Precious Love