Helado Negro: Far In
For Roberto Carlos Lange, 2019 seemed to be the type of year that any songwriter hopes one day to see. After over 10 years of crafting introspective and alluringly amorphous songs as Helado Negro, among other projects, Lange pulled it all together, tied it up, and delivered a masterpiece. This Is How You Smile assembled notes of just about every sound Lange had dabbled in before, but not in the lazy way; every texture was carefully, tightly bound to a Teflon core statement of identity, self-affirmation, and the right to be many things. Nostalgic gazes into childhood portraits, Latin folk turned inside out, sparkly tinsel monsters, suboceanic synth wubs: It was all there, it was all him, and it was all that a listener roots for an artist to achieve. “Brown just glows,” he memorably sang in the first minute, a lyric that landed with way more weight than should be possible from a voice so light, and Lange only radiated more from there.
But then there are the years where self-actualization is secondary to simply remaining alive and well, and these times found Lange shortly after releasing This Is How You Smile. A long tour behind the album broke him down—just in time for a pandemic, his 40th birthday, and a move to North Carolina after a decade and a half in Brooklyn. On his new double album, Far In, he doesn’t sound quite so concerned with the artistic “step forward” as with healthier steps. His priority today seems to be, to quote his first words on Far In, “Wake up tomorrow.”
If This Is How You Smile was the complete house tour of Lange’s psyche, Far In is more like an afternoon barbeque in the backyard. It doesn’t tell as complex of a story, but you’re more than happy to hang out in the sun for a while and enjoy his company. The aesthetics are much more even: steady, mellow, comforting. Lange may not have felt as carefree as he sounds on these 15 chilled-out tracks, but they seem like signposts, like a target state of mind more than a revealing self-portrait.
Lange has always had a delicate touch, but the general breeziness here is different. The prominent drumming of Jason Trammell has a lot to do with that: He’s a consistent presence, always drawing attention but never loud, manipulating his hi-hat and muted snare to keep it interesting while holding down the dance rhythms of “Hometown Dream” and “There Must Be a Song Like You” or slower jams like “Agosto” and “Telescope.” With Trammell’s help, Lange shows that even his disco-inflected songs can still be tactile and rewarding in headphones—albeit some more than others. “Outside the Outside” is the best example, a silent-rave shuffle that quietly pulls you in; it sounds like it’s coming up through the floorboards, a song that you’ll only hear if you crouch low. “Gemini and Leo,” meanwhile, dials it up to near-anthem size and loses some of that magnetic intimacy that Lange does so well, like a stick of watermelon gum that blasts flavor for a few minutes then goes bland.
Far In still has its fair share of range, but there are fewer songs that feel like he’s flipping parts around, or opening up a hidden door. The moments with a lighter pulse (like the fingerpicked “Wind Conversations,” which perfectly evokes lying in shady grass) or almost none at all (“Aguas Frías,” a beautifully accentuated drone on thornier themes of fragile memory and lost love) are more ripe to crack open and explore than the dance tracks, which offer little in the way of mystery, and even stick out at times. Ultimately, that makes Far In feel a little less ambitious than the past few Helado Negro albums (despite its beefy 68-minute runtime and stacked roster of collaborators, including Kacy Hill and William Tyler) if still the right move for Lange at this moment. From Solar Power to Sky Blue Sky, there’s plenty of precedent for the lower-key, sun-worshipping album that immediately follows an artist’s most personal effort, the one that nearly crushed them and was widely hailed as a masterpiece.
Last year, Lange and his partner, visual artist Kristi Sword, released Kite Symphony, Four Variations: a rhythm-less, instrumental album—a companion to a site-specific series of Mylar sculptures—about the skies over Marfa, Texas. The influence of that project is palpable on Far In. To me, this album has a closer resemblance to a kite in the air. It dances, it’s colorful and detailed, and it feels light enough to be swept up off the ground by a gentle gust of wind. It can also be an oddly satisfying and centering thing: On days when your stresses and anxieties consume you, block out the world and just fixate on a kite for a little while, and you might find your footing again. This is Lange’s reminder to himself, and anyone listening, on Far In. If you’re lucky enough to have the power to do so, lighten up—it won’t kill you. It’s far more likely to save you.
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