On Christmas Eve last year, Tom Krell teased fans by using Twitter to boast about upcoming material. “i didn’t put a rec out this year but I feel slighted by these year end lists bc of the songs i’m sitting on lol :+),” the tweet read. It was something you might expect from a certain egotistical rap god (minus the smiley face and all), but coming from an eloquent and unassuming songwriter who doubles as a philosophy Ph.D. student, the assertion came off more excited than arrogant, more promising than prophetic. Expectations began to rise.
The lo-fi R&B of How To Dress Well’s 2010 debut, Love Remains, introduced the music world to Krell from a distance, his expressive silhouette veiled behind muted soundscapes and distorted vocals. Two years later, Total Loss’s glassy production and vulnerability placed us at his bedroom window, revealing a much more personal and relatable musician. Now, six months after hyping up new songs on Twitter, Krell has finally shared his third LP, “What Is This Heart?” Unlike his previous albums, it never settles for the same view of its artist for more than a moment, yet the montage it creates is the most exposing image we’ve seen of Krell yet.
Wavering between acoustic minimalism and emotive maximalist glory (sometimes within the same four-minute song), “What Is This Heart?” is undoubtedly Krell’s most ambitious and impressive work to date. It’s a dizzying exploration of his own pains, relationships and questions intermixed with those of the rest of the world and packaged into one hour-long collection of eccentric pop.
Where Krell’s first two albums worked by sticking to their distinctive sonic spheres, his third release gains ground by transcending genre. Songs like “What You Wanted” and the tantalizing “Words I Don’t Remember” build on the recent electronic experimentation of Autre Ne Veut. The mechanized bleakness of “Face Again” seems directly influenced by Yeezus. The chiming piano runs in “See You Fall” call to mind Sigur Ros circa Takk. Then, soul-grabbing pop gems like “Repeat Pleasure” and “Precious Love” sound like they would fit quite nicely in the middle of a Katy Perry record. Yet, for all of the connections we could draw, these songs escape any notion of being derivative simply by the nature of their transformative structure. It’s Krell’s decision not to limit his inspirations that makes the album so distinctly his own, one of the many paradoxes that abounds on “What Is This Heart?” The only misfire is the plainspoken “Very Best Friend,” which is built around a rather irritating audio loop and features the lyrics “You’re my baby, want you to have it all / Want you to have my baby, please don’t be appalled.” Though the song comes with a built-in defense from critics like me (“I could say it smarter, but I want it gentle,” Krell sings before the lackluster chorus), it’s not enough. Even if he is being sincere, the invitation is just not that enticing.
Despite its deeply personal lyrical content, “What Is This Heart?”, like its title suggests, is ultimately dealing with the big questions here, examining the search for purpose in a seemingly meaningless existence and the quest to both love and be loved in a world that is plagued by isolation. “There’s no design, no god / just the future in my mother’s broken heart,” Krell croons in the heartbreakingly desolate opener “2 Years On (Shame Dream).” Later in “A Power” he sings, “I want to close my eyes / knowing that I saw this rock teeming with life / and float off to that void at the top of the sky / just knowing that I loved and lost in all directions / and that I lived to the highest.” It’s a momentary pause after three minutes at a steady jogging pace. A few seconds later, the track breaks into a sprint, forcing the listener to run alongside Krell and understand the exhausting effort it took to make an album of this proportion, if only for the next 30 seconds.
For all its exploration of human alienation and inadequacies, “What Is This Heart?” maintains a constant outflow of hope. The cheeriest of the 12 tracks, “Repeat Pleasure” includes a climax that will likely go down as one of the most triumphant moments in music this year. “Even broken my heart will go on!” Krell declares with a conviction that would put Celine Dion to shame. Two tracks later, the stunning string crescendos of “Pour Cyril,” serve as a perfect setting for lines about love that is totally free of shame or pain. However, perhaps the most optimistic moment of all can be found in the album’s final seconds. After 55 minutes of asking questions without getting any answers, the atmospheric synths at the end of “House Inside (Future Is Older Than the Past)” begin to fade into nothingness, yet somehow Krell is able to remind himself “Yeah, this world is such a pretty thing.”
With “What Is This Heart?” Tom Krell has managed to indulge his experimental tendencies while at the same time achieve his most accessible sound to date. One moment he’s whispering in your ear, and the next he’s careening around like a loose bottle rocket. It’s a bold approach that can be disorienting during the process, but when you step back and view the album as a whole, the confusion is precisely what makes the record feel all the more authentic and significant. There are still six months to go before we all start drawing up our end-of-the-year lists, but something tells me Krell won’t be feeling slighted come December.