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“It’s a joke, right? Like, a parody?” That’s my friend looking over the cover to What Is This Heart? for the first time, at the haunted-looking face staring sorrowfully offside, darkness crowding at the edges and twining with his features. “Of all these Earnest Musicians,” he continues, “who need you to know just how much they feel it.” 

He has a point: for anyone looking to satirise the rise of the hyper-earnest artist, the type who sing with their eyes closed and their fists balled, lips trembling with emotion as they let it all out, this is pretty much how you’d do it. With a cover image that just embodies all that hurt and the pain and easy human-condition metaphor, and a title that’s nakedly candid, almost hilariously desperate in its emotional strive. With song titles that need no deconstructing, like ‘Precious Love’, ‘Childhood Faith In Love’ and ‘Very Best Friend,’ shamelessly, yearningly emotive, and songs that ride a teetering line between music and confessional. Honestly, The Onion couldn’t have done much better.

Indeed, you’d possible argue that for satire it goes too far, that it oversteps and stumbles. That it’s too much, surely? That there’s no-one this emotional, anywhere.

Enter Tom Kwell, who as How To Dress Well has made a career out of spilling emotion onto tape, through previous albums Love Remains and Total Loss and lyrics that often read like therapy. And sure, to read his lyrics can almost seem like comedy, so raw and unfiltered that the only fitting response is laughter, albeit of the nervous kind. But to hear him sing – well, any laughter stops pretty damned fast, Kwell’s voice a ghostly quiver of falsetto of such staggering power and command he could narrate a receipt and still draw tears from anyone within range.

It’s a weapon that remains just as potent on this third outing, veering from a near-whisper to whale-bothering often within the same line. That said, opener ‘2 Years On (Shame Dream)’ is uncharacteristically understated, a low-key assemblage of tinkling piano and acoustic guitar beneath its tale of everyday sadness that ebbs and swells but never explodes, although as a build into ‘What You Wanted’ it play its role well. The latter’s a magnificent track, a dance of lyrical flow and rising pace, all rattling beats and flecks of brass and echo and fade.

It’s a high bar set and the first half pretty much maintains it, through the deep bass and distended voices of ‘Face Again’ to the still, sad strings that open ‘See You Fall.’ The mid-point ‘Words You Remember’ is the album’s strongest hand, a stunning weave of R&B vocals and moody synths, Kwell’s voice cut up and bouncing across the mix in advance of the epic cinema of its extended outro.

But it gets exhausting, all this honesty, and the second half goes wrong: from ‘Pour Cyril’ onwards What Is This Heart? has no more tricks to pull. Kwell’s voice could never get tiresome, but his songwriting sure does, and the album seems unclear as to what it wants to be – too restless for heartbreak, too downbeat for the dancefloor, like a candle that’s trying to illuminate a club. It reaches a very sad nadir with ‘Very Best Friend’, the noxiously mawkish vessel that delivers the following – 

cause you’re my baby/want you to have it all

want you to have my babies/please don’t be a fool

and our differences won’t matter in the end

just know that you will always be my very best friend

my very best friend

my very best friend

my very best friend

my very best friend

– after which there’s not a whole lot that can be said in his defence. 

Which is a shame, because Kwell is, at his best, a quite phenomenal talent. But unlike last album around there’s a fair amount of competition for this sound right now, from Autre Ne Veut to elements of Justin Timberlake’s recent offerings, and the Sohn album in particular has a consistency and a quality that this just doesn’t match. “I know I can be extra-sentimental,” Kwell sings near the end in a rare moment of self-reflection, “And hey I stumble sometimes it’s just right.” Yeah, sadly that’s pretty much spot on. 

5/10

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