Helado Negro’s New Bask In A Sense Of Discovery
In June, 2015, Roberto Carlos Lange, who records as Helado Negro, released a single titled “Young, Latin and Proud.” Despite the bold title, the song sounded more like a flicker than like a flame. It was tranquil and soothing, with Lange singing gently, almost timidly, over a swaying synth line. His lyrics were addressed to a younger version of himself—someone searching for the language to make sense of his own story: “And you can only view you / With what you got / You don’t have to pretend / That you got to know more / ’Cause you are young, Latin, and proud.”
That “Young, Latin and Proud” was released within days of Donald Trump’s announcement of his Presidential candidacy made it seem like a timely anthem for immigrant America. But Lange’s song was actually part of an ongoing conversation with himself. Before then, Lange had released four albums of quirky, folky electronic pop, often sung in Spanish. Songs such as “Young, Latin and Proud” and the shivery, dreamlike “It’s My Brown Skin,” both of which appeared on his album “Private Energy” (2016), anchored the playful, searching quality of his music in questions of personal intimacy. They were messages of comfort and encouragement to the boy he spied in old family photos, insights about self-acceptance and self-love that he couldn’t fully articulate until his mid-thirties.
Lange was born and raised in southern Florida, the son of Ecuadorian immigrants. Growing up, he took in a range of influences, from Miami bass and experimental dance music to Latin-American folk songs. He initially made instrumental, sample-based soundscapes under a variety of names: La Muerte Blanca, Boom & Birds, Epstein. These collages were full of childlike surrealism, collisions of sixties psychedelia and cumbia rhythms. Occasionally, he would chant or whisper over the mix. He didn’t begin truly singing until he was nearly thirty, on his first album as Helado Negro, a name stitched together from inside jokes with his wife (whose favorite food is ice cream, or helado) and his family (whose affectionate nickname for him was Negro), in 2009. The early Helado Negro albums imagined a midpoint between exotica-tinged electronic music and folk, like dispatches from some vibrant, imaginary island. Sometimes the music sounded like the slowest Depeche Mode song ever. Lange sang and hummed along, his vocals a quavering texture floating above glistening guitars and gurgling synthesizers.
In 2014, he was booked to play a big show in Mexico City, and he decided that he needed to fill out his stage setup, which was usually quite bare. His wife, the artist Kristi Sword, created a set of “tinsel mammals,” full-body costumes that made their wearers look like shimmery Muppets. Lange began touring with the costumes, inviting audience members to put them on and dance onstage. In one photograph, it looks as though he’s singing his heart out while four disco balls slowly melt around him. The tinsel mammals suggested something about the appeal of Lange’s songs, allowing his fans to set aside their inhibitions, safely anonymous inside the radiant costumes. And his album “Private Energy” suggested that we are all pulsing, complicated balls of energy, hoping to emanate into the world around us—but that there are some parts of us that remain forever unknowable.
Lange’s career has been a gradual peeling away of layers, an attempt to feel comfortable with his own discomfort. On his new album, “This Is How You Smile,” which came out on March 8th, the songs bask in a sense of discovery. As the world outside moves faster, he lingers on gestures, glances, moments of escape: hiding under the covers until winter ends, “trying to look cool” while walking, admiring another person’s laugh. “Take care of people today,” he sings, over a glimmering electric-guitar line, on “Two Lucky.” “Hold their hand / Call them up if you wanna say / ‘Hey’ . . .”
Perhaps the greatest discovery of “This Is How You Smile” is how much it relies on the hushed beauty of Lange’s voice. The arrangements are sparse, using ache and tremor, an easygoing falsetto. On the feathery campfire ballad “Imagining What to Do,” he seems to hold back, to carefully mete out his sense of euphoria, as he chases his partner’s “glow.” Often, as on the slow-motion sunrise of an opener, “Please Won’t Please,” it sounds as if he’s trying to smile and sing at the same time. There’s something riveting about such graceful, controlled calm, even as he laments, on “Pais Nublado,” darkness in the distance. “Despacio te digo / Porque nos falta un / Tiempo mas / Para pasear este / Pais nublado,” he sings over the song’s wispy, ambling guitars and windswept ambience, evincing a desire to speak slowly and walk deliberately through this “cloudy country.” It’s the only song on the album in which he switches back and forth between Spanish and English: “And we’ll take our turn / And we’ll take our time / Knowing that we’ll be / Here long after you.”
Notions of self-care and mindfulness seem pretty banal nowadays, the stuff of life-style brands, meditation apps, and targeted Facebook ads. But perhaps the salvageable point is that we shouldn’t see life as something that merely happens to us—the ceaseless march of time doesn’t mean we need to live as fast as possible. Listening to “This Is How You Smile,” one is drawn to Lange’s capacity to give shape to the ephemeral, the way he regards life’s small moments with a kind of naïve awe, and tries to hold them for a nanosecond longer. “Seen my aura for the first time,” he sings, on “Please Won’t Please,” with a kind of casual bliss that makes you want to search for your own, too. “Blush now, they can’t know / Lifelong histories show / That brown won’t go / Brown just glows.”
Yet Lange also seems wary of giving it all away—of letting us too far under his skin. The video for the gorgeous song “Running” shows a Latino teen-ager sprinting with purpose and determination through empty hills and fields, though whether he’s travelling toward or away from something remains unknown. Interludes throughout the album provide glimpses of Lange’s own life: recordings from weddings and immigration rallies, rediscovered instrumental loops from his former musical identities. His English lyrics sketch out everyday intimacies, while his Spanish ones are often filled with distant horizons and smeary abstraction. “Nadie quiere / Pensar / Que hay algo / En la nada / Y el cuerpo de luz / Aparece / Cuando veo / Tu cara,” he sings softly, over the skittering guitar and playful steel pan of “Sabana de Luz.” Nobody wants to think that there is something in nothingness, and the body of light appears when I see your face. A few of the most beautifully unadorned songs on the album are sung in Spanish, a reminder of the immigrant’s psyche, of how some things just make more sense in a language that reminds you of home.
The title “This Is How You Smile” comes from “Girl,” a short story by Jamaica Kincaid. It’s essentially a one-sided conversation, in which a mother, in an expression of tough love, overwhelms her daughter with advice she is too young to grasp. Some of it involves the basic life skills she will need to master if she is to be a good wife and mother, like how to iron or cook, how to choose the best loaf of bread or care for a sick child. Other parts are survival tactics, ways of guarding your dignity. “This is how you smile to someone you don’t like at all,” the mother says. “This is how you smile to someone you like completely.” Of course, to that “someone” the mother conjures, there’s no difference: they both look like a smile.
For many of us, passed-down life lessons are meant to mold you into a legible shape, not tell you who you are. Minute gestures become freighted with meaning, especially in households like Lange’s, in which parents and children are assimilating into a new world at the same time. You learn to smile because it’s expected of you, and then one day you do so because you want to. It’s what draws me to Lange’s music, which is earnest and content, a work of deceptively grand ambitions. It’s as though these songs contain some secret about how to live on one’s own time, surrendering neither hope nor ambition. And yet you’re reminded, in Lange’s brew of languages and lyrical set pieces, that this is someone else’s mystery. Belief comes from recognizing your own sense of power, the enchanting grain of your own voice, and who deserves to share in your aura. ♦