NO EASY TRANSMISSION - Tyler McCabe
Lately, I wake up before the sun rises, wash my face, shimmy into clothes, and press some food into a pan, thinking dark and hopeful thoughts, pleading with my gods, and then I find myself once again turning on Helado Negro’s recently released fifth LP, Private Energy, to focus my mind. I think it is more expressive and possibly corrective of these times than I could possibly be.
Which isn’t to say that this album is political commentary, nor that Helado Negro’s career belongs only to this moment. Roberto Carlos Lange has made music under multiple names over many years, and the Helado Negro moniker simply describes his most ambitious persona, a voice that spans languages, landscapes, and private interiors. The name “Helado Negro,” which translates to “black ice cream,” captures several angles of his work—music that is strange, sweet, spooky, racially inflected, and whimsical. Lange pumps up this persona like a tent and invites you inside for the show. At the same time, he uses “Helado Negro” to hide and convey hiddenness. But expansiveness and mystery have always gone hand-in-hand. In one song he describes his intent, “Looking for universal supply,” and realizes: “Physical dimensions don’t hold me back anymore.”
I should note that non-Spanish-speakers like myself may perceive a greater sense of mystery in this music than others, as most of the songs are in Spanish. (Those in the same boat as me might welcome this small experience of being an outsider, since we’re so often afforded linguistic dominance. Or think of it as the perfect workday soundtrack, since the words won’t interrupt your train of thought.) Anyway, this note is relevant: Helado Negro is on a music label dominated by English-limited artists, performs regularly for large crowds of English-limited fans, and is reviewed most often in English. Gaps in understanding are inherent in his work and performances, and he makes the most of them. The lingual divide between the art and the context it’s often placed in expresses and enhances the themes central to Private Energy: isolation and connection, the work of staking out a “self” and somehow still crossing over to others.
This is where his art has something timely to say, at least to me, right now, because this is when I’m listening. (Pre-dawn, pouring coffee, stirring eggs.) How can any of us cross over to the other? How can we restore a state of listening? (The egg yolks break as Helado Negro sings, “I feel invincible without your wisdom / but I feel invisible without your wit. / There's no easy way for me to make this transmission.”) Private Energy describes our paradox, the ground rules. The selfhood of each person contains something unknowable, yet a person’s unknowable self is always right there before you, like a word you can’t translate. It has an energy all its own, which you can’t name; you can only encircle it with other words and hopefully thus crown it.
Helado Negro sings like an old school crooner, his voice honeyed and warbling. With this album he leaves behind some of the glitchier sounds and schizoid compositions of former works, opting instead for guitar and synth lines in bold and somnolent waves. A few tracks—for instance, “We Don’t Have Time for That”—get up to a pace that’s so enjoyable, so funky, I dare you not to hit replay. All around, Helado Negro has adhered more tightly to pop song structures, making these songs his most accessible yet. It’s all well-matched to an album equally in love with its own unique self and deeply desirous of connecting to listeners.
Private Energy achieves those dual intentions—staying in and going out of itself—by cultivating personal and collective pride. I would add that it’s not just pride, but pride at a time when it can feel dangerous to display pride, or at the very least exists as a subversive act. This pride is Helado Negro’s magic ingredient. His music makes self-love not only a prerequisite for connection, but the connective tissue itself. On “Young, Latin and Proud,” he sings, “You grow older knowing that you’ll always be this one thing / and you’ll have this / to be you / and the people / who’ll be waiting here for you / always will be one with you / and you’ll be one with me.” You can hear the grammar beginning to break down here as “you” and “me” begin slowly, wonderfully to collapse in a celebration of Latin identity.
I am, like many of Helado Negro’s fans, not Latin. But in the heat of music, identity politics start to sweat. I am watching the parade of this music, sometimes on the sidelines, sometimes amid the crowd, and believing that this celebration of private selves will unite us. That’s the work ahead, work inside for outside.
I went to an Helado Negro concert in Seattle once. On stage he had a dancer dressed from head to toe in a pile of silver tinsel, which is also the photograph on Private Energy’s album cover. The dancer was completely encased: faceless, textural, bright, and hidden. The tinsel figure shuddered, letting light wash down their body in slow waves. I felt whatever it is that radiates from us uncontrollably. I received a secret I am only beginning to translate.
Read more of Tyler’s thoughts, and take a deep dive into a conversation about art, politics, and the stories we tell at The Porch magazine. Subscribers can access Issue 2 here – and if you haven’t subscribed yet, you can find out more here.