Though Tom Krell is working to ensure How To Dress Well remains an ongoing concern, his project’s legacy has already been cemented. Barring an unexpected reinvention, How To Dress Well will be best remembered as one of the acts responsible for kick-starting indie rock’s unlikely fascination with R&B. That’s a reputation Krell seems uncomfortable with, and understandably so, given how callously the traditionally white genre co-opted a black music tradition, treating it as just another curio to bide time between chillwave and the emo revival, or whatever novel fad breaks next.
Krell has downplayed his ties to indie R&B and R&B in general, telling Pitchfork in 2012, “I think of myself as an experimental musician.” It’s ironic, then, that How To Dress Well’s third full-length album is at its best when Krell dials back the experimentation and embraces his inner Justin Timberlake. What Is This Heart? includes several of the purest pop songs Krell has ever penned, including the slinky Prince homage “Repeat Pleasure” and the triumphantly giddy jam “Childhood Faith In Love (Everything Must Change, Everything Must Stay The Same)”—tracks that would play like hits in the hands of a more adept vocalist or natural stage presence.
So there’s a charming blue-eyed soul EP to be culled from What Is This Heart?’s poppy highlights, but since this is a How To Dress Well album, those nuggets come packed in the usual clouds of loneliness, despair, and regret. All tentative piano plinks and quivering guitar strums, opener “2 Years On (Shame Dream)” kicks off the album on an especially fragile note. “Pour Cyril” ups the volume and the emotional ante with weeping orchestrations. And with its demonic tremble, “Face Again” could be mistaken for a Weeknd track—an unusual choice for an artist supposedly trying to distance himself from the stigma of indie R&B. On the disjointed What Is This Heart? the disconnect between Krell’s pop leanings and his innate miserableness has never been greater.