Even by his standards, Helado Negro’s sixth LP is an intimate affair. Negro’s music has always been a space in which the Florida-born singer-songwriter/producer can open up, but on This Is How You Smile he comes through with some incredibly poignant tracks. From soul-bearing contemporary torch songs to watery electronic ballads, this is an album that draws strength from vulnerability.
As has so often been the case with Negro’s work, many of the numbers here relate the complexities of the Latino experience. On entries such as ‘Pais Nublado’ the lyrics shift between Spanish and English, while ‘Sabana de luz’ is sung wholly in the former. Both are spare guitar balads that have their edges crinkled by Negro’s tender voice and idiosyncratic instrumental choices (check the steel drums on ‘Sabana de luz’). At times Negro’s narratives revolve around a general ‘we’ - a people, a community, a relationship - while at other moments he paints pictures of single figures or intimate moments. When taken together, the sense you get of Negro here is of a figure with many stories to tell and many ways in which he wants to tell them.
Negro’s composite experience is beautifully translated into music on This Is How You Smile. A richly melodic record, these tracks have a wistfulness to them that is reminiscent of Perfume Genius’ best work. The moments in which Negro moves towards more beat-driven songwriting retain their quietness - opener ‘Please Won’t Please’ sounds like The War On Drugs performed by candlelight, while ‘Seen My Aura’ has a bedroom r ‘n’ b vibe to it that draws equally from Eyedress and The Antlers. There is also a little Sufjan Stevens in Negro’s inventive orchestrations and willingness to pair organic and electronic tones.
Whatever style or sound he’s working with at a given moment, it is Negro himself that holds This Is How You Smile together. He has managed to translate his personal and shared experience into an open, giving and passionate record.