htdw1[xrr rating=3.5/5]“2 Years On (Shame Dream),” the opening track from How to Dress Well’s third LP, “What Is This Heart?”, begins with a dissonant acoustic piano chord, a shaky, gentle lead vocal and a sparse acoustic guitar. This description may come as a surprise to anyone who wallowed in the synthy reverb of Tom Krell’s last release Total Loss. That record was dedicated almost militantly to a sonic concept, one that involved bedroom intimacy, R&B-infused vocals and lots of layers of misty, electronic sounds.

On “What Is This Heart?”, Krell and producer Rodaidh McDonald have pushed the boundaries of genre and sound established on the last How to Dress Well record. The aforementioned “2 Years On (Shame Dream)” almost sounds like a gentle folk song, the kind of thing Sufjan Stevens or Conor Oberst might produce in their most vulnerable state. Krell and McDonald are to be applauded for venturing outside their wheelhouse, for the experiments work much of the time.

“Words I Don’t Remember,” with its harmonious, wobbly keyboards, finger snaps and choral echoes, sounds like it would be at home on Total Loss. “What You Wanted,” though, is one of “What Is This Heart?”’s most successful departures from this tried-and-true R&B formula. The primary sounds are chimes, a trippy drum groove, crunchy electric guitar and haunting, high-pitched strings. It sounds like it would fit better on Kid A than on How to Dress Well’s previous works. The chamber-orchestra aesthetic of “Pour Cyril” is a bold artistic choice to back up Krell’s high falsetto stylings. “Repeat Pleasure” is catchy and groovy as anything in the How to Dress Well oeuvre, a successful attempt at an almost-upbeat pop song.

Despite these victories, “What Is This Heart?” occasionally comes off as a bit flat, with Krell and McDonald flying a bit too high on the wings of experimentation for experimentation’s sake. “Precious Love”’s central hook isn’t catchy enough to be repeated so exhaustively. “Face Again” tries to be dancey, but it’s too muddled to establish a consistent groove. Especially when followed by the rather stale ballad “See You Fall,” it creates a black hole of boredom towards the start of the record.

Although this third effort isn’t perfect from start to finish, its high points project the emotional vulnerability that Krell established as his specialty on the first two records. On the Total Loss track “Set It Right,” the songwriter listed all of the people in his life he had lost, like character types catalogued in a Walt Whitman poem. “2 Years On (Shame Dream)” is all you need to hear to know that Krell is still open and willing as able to communicate the deepest, darkest aspects of human experience. Some of the key lyrics include, “My father, he was terrible,” “No one ever told you life would be this unfair/ But, oh, it is” and “There’s no design, no God, no/ Just the future in my mother’s broken heart.”

It isn’t feel-good music by any means. Rather, like only a few contemporary artists – Perfume Genius, the Antlers and Antony and the Johnsons among them – How to Dress Well reaches into the depths of the listener’s soul, pulling out painful memories and deep angst. Yet, the music is infused with enough beautiful artistry to remind the listener that life is filled with more than pain and misery.

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