"What Is This Heart?" is almost a pop album. In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Tom Krell disclosed that he aspires to make music that is "pop, but not populist." That endeavoring on his part probably has something to do with my reservations about this, the latest LP from Krell's musical project, How To Dress Well.
"What Is This Heart?" elaborates on Krell's track record of weirding the R&B genre with works like 2012's Total Loss. The songs on this album often gather themselves patiently, hand-over-hand, out of minimalism — opener "2 Years On (Shame Dream)" sees Krell's vocals accompanied by piano, then guitar, then woodwinds, then reverb, in a spare procession. Throughout the album bare acoustics are met with percussive pop beats, and layered in with syncopated instrumentals. There's a lot of negative space in the songs; room for echoing, for the sounds to circle back on themselves. It lends a mountainous aesthetic to the album, a pleasing grandness promised by the existential dilemma of its title. In the middle of the album is its binary star — successive songs "Repeat Pleasure" and "Words I Don't Remember" — the former a hopped-up dance track, the latter an R&B eddy into which Krell gradually pours melodramatic electric guitar, synths that kick up from subaquatic depths, and his own tenor, stuttered and delayed.
Where "What is This Heart?" gets troubled is in its weird locus in terms of genre. It has all the aesthetic of pop music, but something fits awkwardly. It is not quite contrived, but it is perhaps too self-aware for its own good. Lyrically, the songs are simplistic, pop affectations that broach sorrow, heartache, but to such a degree of saturation that Krell's emoting feels disingenuous, sly, almost parodic. "Precious Love" has the trappings of an R&B ballad but lacks the earnestness. And that is most of the album — something that is almost genuine. Krell talks wanting, needing, yearning, loving, with the lexicon and inflection of pop music, but always in a way that feels bloated with intellectualist purpose, a dissociative ironic distance from itself. Even those songs with more interesting production, such as the ebullient "Very Best Friend", are hampered by irony. That song in particular finishes with a loop of a vocal sample of someone who sounds — to no ameliorating effect — like Lana Del Rey, confiding "every time I feel I have my footing, I lost it."
It's hard to sustain investment in any of the emotional turmoil Krell rhapsodizes when you're made to do the work of assessing whether or not he really means what he's saying.
"What Is This Heart?" is available for purchase on iTunes. Listen to single "Words I Don't Remember" below.