The Hidden Path to Clarity
Roberto Carlos Lange has a talent for hiding things that is just barely eclipsed by his flair for exposing them. On the vinyl issue of his newest album as Helado Negro, This Is How You Smile, there is a credit for a picture described as a "Hidden Helado photo". After some searching, one is able to see that there is a photo of the man himself, the only one at all of him as an adult, that graces the inside of the jacket. He has tucked his image away in a place that no one sees, and in listening to the album it becomes apparent that offering clues to riddles both solvable and not is part and parcel of the artistic statement within.
The opening track "Please Won't Please" offers insights into the advantages of being brown inside a culture where whiteness is considered the norm due to its sheer ubiquity. The advice here gives permission to blush, presumably not only for the fact that it is an emotionally honest response to certain stimuli, but also because "history shows that brown won't go, brown just glows." Those who can't know what it is like to learn these lessons are here offered the chance to listen in on the pride of growing up and first realizing the minor superpower of one's emotions being just a little bit harder to read on their face. On "Seen My Aura" the narrator is passing time in and around a swimming pool against an 80s funk bassline and guitars posing sparklingly effervescent counterpoints in the margins. He's explicitly "trying to look cool", when he sees his "aura" positioned in front of the person he is spending the day with: again, a hidden knowledge makes itself known and becomes a puzzle piece that enables him to peer momentarily through the keyhole of a door that separates our physical beings from our metaphysical thoughts and constructs. "Fantasma Vaga", the title of the album’s arguable centerpiece, translates to "vague ghost", and in the context of hidden truths both of those words have heavy meanings: vague is a lack of clarity, a ghost is the earthly essence of a presence that has moved on.
Elsewhere throughout the album, it is the sounds themselves that can be decoded to uncover hidden meanings. "Echo for Camperdown Curio" uses field recordings that include a kissing couple on a bench, a cyclist inadvertently passing by, and whistles reverberating through a tunnel to paint a vivid picture of the urban nighttime landscape as experienced in the microcosmic needle's eye of the human mind. It is here, within our own narrow human experience, that the reality of the city is compressed into a point of nearly infinite density as we filter it down to focus on only those elements that need our attention. "Pais Nublado" is a hymn-like shuffle of bustling imagination, metaphorically obscured behind its titular clouds as much as it's sonically buried under the warmth of classical guitar and elegant synth work combining to evoke Brazilian bossa nova pop.
It's on the LP's penultimate tune that we begin to see the simplicity behind all this, and like a perverse deconstruction of Occam's Razor it turns out to be the simplicity of it that makes it so complex. "Two Lucky" is a call to "take care of people" and to not let ego get in the way of being open and loving others. It ends with the enlightened dismissal of our ability to really make sense of anything given the amount we don’t know ("who are we to explain this mystery"), but it nonetheless provides a mode of living that itself answers all the universal questions: love is all, don't be afraid of it, and do what you can to make sure others know that they are loved.
In this final feat of transfiguration, Lange proves that all the concealment in the world can't blur the truth of love's intense power and inarguable influence on the individual human psyche. On This Is How You Smile Helado Negro hides things everywhere as a way to lead listeners to deeper and more fundamental truths. In a world that daily seems to take a step closer to the edge of catastrophic emotional emptiness it is so much more than a breath of fresh air, it is a gale force wind.