How to Dress Well has proven more versatile than its gauzy early days suggested, when Tom Krell pursued a very specific, very stylized sound that nevertheless pointed the way for many other artists mixing R&B and indie. He stretched his boundaries further with his second album, Total Loss, which traded Love Remains' artful distortion for a streamlined approach that sometimes felt caught between where he'd been and where he was going. His destination becomes clear on What Is This Heart?, a wondering, musing title for an unapologetically sprawling album that explores the facets of love, loss, trust, and doubt. Reuniting with Total Loss producer Rodaidh McDonald, Krell sounds more natural and confident than ever before, even though this is his most ambitious work yet. He gives new dimensions to the impressionism that graced Love Remains and to a lesser extent, Total Loss; instead of shaping static and echoes into sonic cathedrals, he uses orchestral flourishes, as on "Pour Cyril," where a string section becomes even more massive with copious amounts of reverb. Similarly, the stream-of-consciousness moments that once blurred together remain discrete, giving Krell the space for some of his most eclectic songs. He mixes dubstep and strings on the anguished "Face Again," then follows it with "See You Fall," a luminous ballad driven by acoustic guitar and piano. He also embraces '80s and '90s R&B even more fully than before on highlights such as the crisp, catchy "Very Best Friend" and "Repeat Pleasure," which takes its HAIM-esque sheen to rapturous heights that make it one of How to Dress Well's finest moments. Above all, the songs on What Is This Heart? are rangy, allowing for plenty of introspection and showcasing Krell's accomplished vocals on songs like "What You Wanted," which moves from worried to serene, and from intimate to epic. As the album unfurls, he spends more time with the more abstract side of his music: "Words I Don't Remember" updates Love Remains' collage-like layers and juxtapositions to achingly beautiful effect, while "Childhood Faith in Love"'s bubbling sonics telegraph its heady romance. By the time the album closes with Krell crooning "the world is such a pretty thing," he's taken listeners on a masterfully balanced tour of his sounds and moods. An immersive album that feels designed to be taken as a whole, What Is This Heart? reveals How to Dress Well coming into its own.
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AllMusic Review by Heather Phares