It feels like the world of 'indie R&B' (call it what you will) has exploded since How To Dress Well's second album, Total Loss. That album was released two years ago but since then Frank Ocean and Miguel have both achieved significant mainstream success, Beyoncé has evolved her sound in reflection of an increasing desire for experimentation and lyrical honesty and a Blood Orange created my favourite album of last year.
How To Dress Well, real name Tom Krell, still remains one of the artists that defined a new approach to modern soul music and on What Is This Heart? he seems determined to continue to make his mark on a genre that has grown much larger than him. R&B seems to be devisive at the best of times but there is no doubt that Krell's emotionally cloying, falsetto lead and extravagantly produced third-album will be so more than most.
Yet for those that also believe in the power of pop music to address big questions of the heart, those that believe those feelings are the source of big questions, will find a complex album to get lost in. 2 Years On (Shame Dream) opens What Is This Heart? like a guilty lover creeping in the back door as Krell recounts tales of his youth. It is an opening that doesn't announce the album's arrival so much as quitely writes it down and slips it to you in a note.
Momentum is built through What You Wanted and Face Again, the latter's rough bass line foreboding as Krell cries out "Look me in my face again and tell me what I oughta be... I really think you know what's best for me, yeah I know you know what's best for me."
Those early singles, Repeat Pleasure and Words I Don't Remember, form a collective tent pole moment in What Is This Heart?'s centre, lyrically and musically. Repeat Pleasure nails the challenge of modern monogamy when contrasted to a psychology broadly designed to maximise genetic distribution: whoever you think you want now, it will seem greater than anyone you wanted before and yet less than anyone you may want in the future. Our own desires are a prison.
Words I Don't Remember represents potentially this year's most heartfelt love song - lines thrown out in a cursory fashion that encapsulate those woozy feelings: "Who knows if I love you baby, but you're the only one thing on my mind". As Krell builds his epic pop melodrama around us it feels like his is arriving at his core argument - what is this heart, this love anyway? Just so much biology and psychology - he seems to argue: I may not know what it is, but I know you're the one thing my mind rests on when it stops spinning like a top.
In between the hooks and pop songs What Is This Heart? suffers a slight lack of urgency in contrast the the rapid head rush of some of those stand-out moments. The deliberately naïvely titled Childhood Faith In Love (Everything Must Change, Everything Must Stay The Same) is exactly the rush of endorphins that title suggests. Precious Love, complete with its hold music sample is besotted but recreates a lovelorn 90s R&B aesthetic that is hard to resist. Similarly My Very Best Friend stalks a line somewhere between heartening and scary, so insistent are Krell's words of baby making and never being apart - a reflection of human emotion at its seemingly uncontrollably extreme. It once again calls to mind that album title, what is this heart?
What Is This Heart? is widescreen and grandiose and yet it still doesn't feel fully realised, a little brittle and whilst it attempts to create a concept album out of the focus on love it is a saccharine experience in one setting. At times raw and illuminating, at others a little confused and beguiling... Just like the heart then.
What Is This Heart? is out now, listen via sound cloud above.