It’s been 22 years since Pavement released Slanted & Enchanted, the wellspring from which the old guard of music criticism sought irony over earnestness, detachment over enthusiasm. The most obvious outgrowth of record clerk chin-scratching has been the terms “alternative”—and now “indie”—being attached to pedestrian genres like country and R&B to rope in listeners who would otherwise be allergic to such proletarian pursuits. In the case of the latter, we’ve reached a point where going all in on deeply personal pop records with grandiose ambitions is the boldest reaction against homogenous, Pandora-fied indie rock. And if there’s one person who’s capable of knocking down the wall between the KISS-FM haves and the blog-buzz have-nots, that person is Tom Krell.
Three records into his career as How to Dress Well, 29-year-old Krell may not look like the most obvious candidate to give Usher and R. Kelly a run for their millions. Being a soft-spoken white dude from Denver with a flair for skeletal slow jams begs many questions, the most trenchant being whether or not this guy is for real. His first record, 2010’s Love Remains (released on Portland imprint Lefse), is sulking lover’s rock rapt with soaring, reverb-soaked falsettos and digital clipping, but not the slightest hint of irony. To put it bluntly, Krell is emo as fuck, sans the posturing.
“Growing up, my major milestones were a cassette of The Bodyguard soundtrack and Mariah Carey,” Krell says. “My dad was into weird experimental jazz, and my mom was into ’60s soul like Smokey Robinson. I never really got into that rebellious punk phase. I more went into an emo phase when a girl I liked when I was 13 told me to listen to Alkaline Trio.”
In the frenzy of press that’s surrounded his outstanding June release, What Is This Heart?, Krell has also name-checked Jimmy Eat World and Saves the Day as emotional touchstones for a record that’s a front-runner for record-of-the-year contention. While Pitchfork has stated that loving this record’s endless geyser of sincerity will “get you made fun of” and Stereogum penned an article about “indie R&B’s breaking point” a month prior to its release, qualifying what Krell and contemporaries like Blood Orange and the Weeknd do with an “indie” tag may soon be thing of the past, and for good reason: What Is This Heart? is a massive, radio-ready masterpiece.
“I worked like a fucking dog on this record,” Krell says. “I really feel like I made the best record of 2014. I’ve never worked as hard on anything in my entire life. I probably did near 60 hours of vocal takes. I started to realize that when you decide to really go all in, there are no limits to how much tinkering and how far my perfectionist streak will go.”
What Is This Heart? has a big sound that retains Krell’s best ideas from the past (the feedback that envelops the end of “Pour Cyril”; the heartbreakingly spare arrangement and glitches of “Face Again”) while reaching with arms outstretched to the Top 40 standards that could easily be accompanied by any of the tracks from this record. Anthems “Precious Love” and “Childhood Faith in Love” are hands down the best and most accessible tracks in the HTDW catalog. Krell acknowledges he was goaded by an early interviewer into proclaiming This Heart to be both his most personal and universal record to date, but the experience of taking such sincere, direct music on the road has made it easy for him to get behind that construction.
“I felt like, when I was on tour, I was getting so much extreme generosity of spirit and connection from people,” Krell says. “I remember one guy told me that he and his wife had a miscarriage and they listened to this one song a lot, and it was the score to them getting through that extreme experience. I realized it didn’t make sense for me to go forward and do a record that was intensely personal in a coffee-shop confessional-guy kind of way, and it didn’t make sense to make a record that was about concepts or big themes in a generic way that big pop music can be. I tried to think about the songs that people told me had touched them and remember what I was feeling when I worked on those songs.”
SEE IT: How To Dress Well plays Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St., with DJ Portia, on Monday, Aug. 25. 8:30 pm. $15 advance, $17 day of show. 21+.