22 Years ago, in 1992 young Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson starred in the buddy comedy White Men Can’t Jump. A quite entertaining little flick that also got a serious undertone next to its funny moments. It basically dismantles a few prejudices. In fact, white folks can play basketball as good as the black ones. Even Wesley Snipes realizes that in the end. This example is mentioned since there might be still a few prejudices against white musicians doing proper r&b music in the year 2014. But they couldn’t be further away from the reality. For a couple of years now a new movement of eclectic and talented young artists combine their 90s socialization of black urban music with new elements. Only fools would still call this chillwave by now. Tom Krell, the man behind HOW TO DRESS WELL, has been pioneer from early on. And his third LP What Is This Heart? is the first time he can actually stick up to those expectations.
Thanks to the ‘second wave’ of these new white ‘neo r&b’ stars like SOHN or CHET FAKER, Krell’s eclectic mixture of r&b, soul, dreampop, electronica and traditional songwriter elements arrives just in time for the current hype. And still it takes things to the next level, especially for Krell himself. What Is This Heart? sees HOW TO DRESS WELL stepping out of the shadow and haze. It shows the transformation of the former bedroom project into a steady and confident performing artist. Krell is not hiding his songs and vision anymore behind tons of reverbs (like on the predecessor Total Loss) but is ready to open up his innermost, showing both – his strength but also his fragility. This album is 100 percent himself and – as we already noticed during our recent interview with him – he’s got a lot to say.
Krell open’s his album with the intimate and reduced 2 Years On (Shame Dream). Just him, his guitar and a tender voice dominate the song. He literally strips down to his bones, revealing his fragile feelings and concerns about a surrealistic dream he once had about sexuality, love and his family. It’s a brave and gentle way to start the record but it also sets the tone right for what’s about to follow. What You Wanted introduces a slow shuffling beat with a deeply grooving bass line and an epic finish once the synthesizer organs come into play. It’s the eternal struggle between the longing for love and the difficulty of keeping it. And above all this is the gloomy world we’re living in. It’s the balance of these elements that dominate the lyrical content of What Is This Heart?
‘I look into the future and see just so little light’ sings Krell in the dark and dramatic verses of the single Face Again, just before switching in a more optimistic and almost desperate chorus. ‘Look into my face again and tell me what you wanna see / I don’t think you know what’s best for me.’ Krell is lost – in this world and also for love. Still the latest version of HOW TO DRESS WELL isn’t afraid of also providing proper pop hits. Repeat Pleasure and the smooth 80s r&b vibe of Precious Love are such tunes. Very Best Friend is another one. It shows Krell’s new found strength for providing honesty in combination with catchy pop sounds.
But overall the heart-wrenching topics are the ones that remain essential for the musical microcosm of HOW TO DRESS WELL. ‘What is love but nothing more than anything you wanted, baby?’ sings the musician in Words I Don’t Understand, declaring love as – at least – one of the most important solutions. But there is always more than meets the eye. The closing track House Inside once again deals with the aspect of love being the only alternative draft to the sickness of the modern world. Perhaps a quite extreme opinion but Krell doesn’t do things by halves.
And if you need another argument just listen to epic heartbreaking strings of Poor Cyril. It really shows the artist from his best side. Tom Krell and HOW TO DRESS WELL deliver open-minded honesty in form of a dreamy record that balances between soulful r&b and grooving pop. He isn’t too far away from the mainstream anymore but that actually isn’t a problem as long as he manages to bring this authentic attitude with him. ‘Cause there’s a lack in contemporary music and any attempt to fill it is highly welcome.
On ‘What Is This Heart?’ Tom Krell and his alter ego HOW TO DRESS WELL step out of the shadow and provide a strong album full of confidence and honesty.
NBHAP Rating: 4,5/5
The entire album is currently for stream right here.