How to Make Really Sad Music

Tom Krell’s new album hurts so good.

Tom Krell

In 2012, Frank Ocean broke through while singing, so steadfastly, about a “you” he couldn’t get out his head; last year, Blood Orange slinked his way onto seemingly every cool-kid playlist with a seductive swoon that verbalized anxieties about his own sexuality and homelessness in New York, while Autre Ne Veut, the producer known for defining the now ubiquitous lo-fi R&B sound, wailed over the death of his grandmother. Tom Krell is another leading man in the wave of brittle, vulnerable, sensitive-guy R&B singers reshaping a genre long defined by sexual bravado. Under the name How To Dress Well, Krell sings frequently about love and death, and when he performs live somehow seems to look every fan dead in the eye with unbridled intimacy.

“I’ve read every single story Alice Munro wrote,” said Krell last week, discussing What Is This Heart?, ** his new album. “Because she was a woman, she got a lot of grief for her characters being so ‘dark’. But she said, ‘I never thought fiction was supposed to make people feel good.’” There is a similar this-is-good-for-you brutality to the album. Though it’s a pop record through and through—“Precious Love” is a Beyonce-style ballad; “Repeat Pleasure” sounds like a celebration of disco glee—Krell’s consistently dark lyrics often cut through the easy joy of the music. He sings about wanting more than you need, the unease of intimacy, and love as consumption. “Taken together, the songs are the sum of all these desires competing for happiness,” Krell explained. “And really slow, quiet pain.”