Over the course of three albums, Tom Krell—the man behind How to Dress Well—has created a distinct brand of indie R&B, standing at the forefront of an evolving, sometimes hard-to-define genre. “What Is This Heart?” showcases a modest evolution of sound for the artist, but a focus on deconstructing R&B amidst heart-wrenching songs about love remains Krell’s bread and butter. When I saw the cover art, I figured this album would mark a confident, assured new direction for Krell. His previous covers were dark and anonymous, but although the darkness remains, this latest cover is a close-up of Krell sporting downcast eyes. Would this signal a new page for this project, an entirely deeper level of emotional engagement and sonic experimentation?
Not really. Although these are still intricate pop songs, it at times feels as if Krell has outsmarted himself. The first five songs on here offer little worth celebrating. “Repeat Pleasure” is loose and one of the more unconstrained songs Krell has written. But, like much of this record, its chorus and drumkit-laden beats feel unremarkable. “Words I Don’t Remember” is one of the bigger songs Krell has included on an album, and the back half of it is gorgeous. But, again, that’s one of few memorable moments on here, as style continually blocks out substance.
I’m convinced Krell has substance. Although his subject matter is fairly limited, it still appears sincere. Past songs like “You Don’t Need Me Where I’m Going” struck a perfect balance between the emotional and the experimental. The style never got in the way of the full experience. On “What Is This Heart?” songs like “Precious Love” add so many bells and whistles that the content of what Krell is saying feels dulled.
The weight of these songs is fairly disappointing. Krell’s third album ultimately amounts to a collection of heavy-handed songs that seem to cycle through the same dreary, muddled patterns. While the talent in this project is certainly there, I think How to Dress Well could benefit from a larger focus on simplicity.