Sharp dressed sadness is a old trade secret of royalty and upper class citizens that disguised the fact that melancholy is a universal human trait, and not just for the down-on-your-luck lower class. My Grandmother passed this secret on to me when she said “If you’re not going to study, then you might as well dress well. Because if you’re going to be a nobody, you might as well be a good-looking nobody”. Tom Krell, who goes by the stage name of How to Dress Well, has given this concept a soundtrack, or at least his version of one. His third album What is This Heart? produces more sad R&B tracks packaged in a handsome hip style, but this time around he fails to rise above anything more than “cool wallowing”.
Critics initially jumped on How to Dress Well with the clever and disparaging label “PBR&B”, but even if they called it “Emo R&B”, it’s still a packaging label more meant to describe the people listening to the music rather than the music itself. How music is presented does play a huge part in our reception of it, and well intentioned or not, How to Dress Well is a band name that not only goes against R&B tradition but also puts off a lot of people not wanting to be associated with the “hipster” label. Throwing all of that aside, HTDW’s first two albums made a decent splash, and did create a sound that successfully displayed his R&B vocals with chillwave samples amongst other more sorrowful ambiance.
With a minimalist high reverberated piano note, the album starts with “2 Years On (Shame Dream”, a simple downcast song that lays the groundwork for the rest of the album. Even though the track primarily uses an acoustic guitar, this song, and the entire album is a showcase for Krell’s falsetto voice and lyrics. The problem here and with a majority of the tracks is that while trying to create a low-key reflective mood, the falsetto vocals are too prominent and the acoustic guitar does not pair well with it. “What You Wanted” barely inches out of the gate with some synthesizer to accompany Krell’s sexy/sad crooning, it’s decent but it’s certainly not what I wanted especially this early in the album. What I did want is something to sink into which is the next and best track on the album “Face Again”. Here the falsetto vocals are properly accompanied by low bass tones and low-pitched vocals that have become a recent trend as heard on Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” and Lorde’s “Tennis Court”. I actually really liked the low-pitched vocal when I first heard it with The Knife, I wish How to Dress Well used more of it, because it pairs well with Krell’s voice.
“See You Fall” uses some violins for variety, but it’s a boring lullaby that will put you right to sleep. “Repeat Pleasure” sees How to Dress Well venture into pop territory, but perhaps it’s too upbeat for the theme of the album, because unfortunately there’s not much more of it. Krell knows that he is a talented singer and with What is This Heart he wants to step out of the shadow and drop the “PB” and go with straight ahead R&B vocals. “Words I Don’t Remember” sees more of this, but I just can’t get into the falsetto melodies, it’s as if the he’d rather showcase his voice rather than create a memorable song. “Pour Cyril” is more drivel especially with it’s nonsensical title. “Precious Love”, “Childhood Faith in Love (Everything Must Change, Everything Must Stay the Same”, “A Power”, “Very Best Friend”, “House Inside (Future is Older than the Past) round out a mediocre album of more falsetto vocals and clichéd lyrics that could have worked if the music was stronger, if there was more low end contrast, or even more of the low-pitched vocals that appeared in “Face Again.”