“A truth like that that opens up, kind of begets other truths, and when you discover truths like that, how you think about truths within that are concealed, it does sort of make you alter the way that you look within, and that opens up.”
The extent to which the above quote seems more like a perceptive wisdom than a vacuous bromide is, I predict, the extent to which you like the new How To Dress Well release. It’s from the 2012 documentary Stories We Tell, which, like much of How To Dress Well’s output, drew heavily on nostalgia as wisps of communication and memory that only seem to swirl around truth (specifically, in the film, the truth that your sister is the lovechild of your mother’s extramarital affair). It surfaces on “What Is This Heart?” as a lightly auto-tuned sample at the end of penultimate track “Very Best Friend,” an ode as direct as its title suggests and damp with self-aware yet unabashed sentimentality. The song exemplifies two of the most enjoyable features of Tom Krell’s delivery on the album: deeply felt passion and a striking straightforwardness about that passion.
Does true friendship beget other truths? Does it alter the way you look at yourself? It may be possible to keep from asking yourself those questions after hearing Krell croon that “our differences won’t matter in the end,” but if so, only because they’re obvious enough to pass over unconsciously. That kind of self-evidence seems to be Krell’s guiding principle in making this album and the key to its titular question; it entails a commitment to openness, but more than that, it’s a call for simplicity — which, remember, is always only “one degree of separation” from cliché. “When it’s time to sing, just make them see/ Everything must change, and everything must stay the same/ It’s time to sing with a childhood faith in love.” A return to childhood is a promise “What Is This Heart?” lives up to, with Krell delivering his most optimistic and soft-edged release to date.
Lyrically, Krell has evolved dramatically since Love Remains, whose words were mostly free-associating bits of melodic thread swirling in the hazy air. Here, they’re direct and cohesive, more fully formed and ordered, articulating pangs of loss and fear that were once only abstractions teased out of the anxious tension between his aching falsetto and the sonic structures decaying around it. Continuing a smoothing process that had begun by the time of Total Loss, his music now has the sheen of a well-buffed pearl when held up next to earlier How To Dress Well. Glittering arpeggios, suede synthesizers, thumping percussion near the front of almost every track, a stripped-down, crystal-clear acoustic opener — it feels lush, it pleases and occasionally stirs, but there’s a cold distance between voice and instrument throughout, a distinction that barely existed on previous releases. And very quickly this aesthetic begins to clash with the formlessness of the emotional depths Krell dives into. On the one hand, we seem to be getting a clearer glimpse of the poet who was once submerged and refracted by his own process; on the other, the solid footing saps some of the drama that made that poetry compelling in the first place.
As clear vocals and lyrics are brought to the fore as the primary, if not exclusive, expressive engine, the musicality of the material has seemed to dwindle in importance. Only for a handful of moments — the orchestra-backed verse on “Pour Cyril,” the dueling high/low vocals of “Face Again’s” pre-chorus come to mind — does the production sweep the listener away. Tom Krell’s approach, though the expression is gorgeous, lends itself more to telling than showing. Where, for example, the explosive, karaoke club-ready production of last year’s Anxiety pushed Arthur Ashin’s comparable interiority — vulnerability, uncertainty, insatiable desire — to towering heights of showmanship, “What Is This Heart?”, well, looks within, the musical atmosphere only ever underscoring Krell’s elation and vexation rather than acting as a foil. Like the movies of David Cronenberg, whom Krell has named as a filmmaker he’d like to work with, there’s an organic sensuousness that gradually becomes gratuitous in a way that renders it all a bit silly. “Face Again,” an advance single and a rare glimpse at the viscera Krell is capable of exposing, decked out with two finely crafted hooks, finds him at an intersection of defiance and begging, steeling his tenderness with a thrilling aggression, only to see the anticipation frittered away by a luridly mixed drumbeat just before the climax. And at 55 minutes, there’s at least a few spoonfuls of schmaltz dripping from the rafters with a quiet, soggy splatter. A line like “But I wanna close my eyes knowing that I saw this rock teeming with life/ And float up to the void at the top of the sky” doesn’t do much for me beyond reminding me to talk a little less shit about Chris Martin.
Sincerity without motive, the kind of emotional honesty that affords itself no plausible ironic deniability, drenches the album but happens to reveal a self-image that I can’t imagine anyone wanting to deny — hence, the endearing appeal of the brazenly sappy “Very Best Friend.” In a pop culture that drains genuine emotionality, an EP-length flood of verbal expression should be refreshing even if the end product is somewhat dilute. I’m reminded of the closing paragraph of David Foster Wallace’s essay, “E Unibus Pluram”: “Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk things. Risk disapproval. […] The new rebels might be the ones willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘How banal.’ Accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Credulity.”
Anyone who praises How To Dress Well in 2014 will almost certainly have something like this rejection of irony in mind, seeing How To Dress Well as a champion of the “single-entendre value” of fully exposed communication. I don’t want to seem dismissive of that perspective, and I already cringe to think about how much those two and a half dots up there are going to look like rolling eyes + ambivalence. That praise would probably be well placed if we were talking about the mystical realm of multi-cam sitcoms and Grammy nominees. But looking at the really existing indie-music landscape — the awe that attends “packets of earnest magnificence,” the bravery-cred gained by liking “uncool” music, the increasing ease of identifying and dismissing inauthenticity and decreasing fun in deriding it, Mark Kozelek’s success, How To Dress Well’s past work — it’s hard to see what about “What Is This Heart?” is all that risky. So, to close with a question I can only answer for myself: Setting aside your surprise at an R&B singer emoting energetically, what’s left to keep you listening?