Dust can serve multiple symbolic functions. It may assume a wistful, almost nostalgic connotation, as in the dust that coats an attic full of once beloved, now forgotten belongings. Or, more nihilistically, it can suggest entropy, the inevitable physical decay always lurking just around the corner. Laurel Halo borrows from both of these representations on her third LP with Hyperdub, crafting a series of drifting art pop pieces that evoke forgotten, buried materials long since fallen into disrepair.
Admittedly, however, any nostalgic quality is plainly missing from the music, and Dust instead surveys its subject matter with an almost clinical detachment. The Michigan-born, Berlin-based artist takes a sharp left turn away from the stark techno that characterized 2013’s excellent Chance of Rain and 2015’s double EP In Situ, placing her vocals front and center in a manner more reminiscent of 2012’s Quarantine. Musically, these arrangements often combine disparate elements that only barely coexist peacefully in the same track. The rolling beats on “Do U Ever Happen” intrude with seemingly little regard for the rest of the song as if someone was moving furniture in the same room while Halo recorded it. Dissociated stabs of organ periodically interrupt “Sun to Solar”, evoking a strangely commercial space in a sudden vaporwave fantasy.
Indeed, Dust often dissects the modes and techniques of commercial advertisement and displaces them in barely recognizable, decidedly non-commercial contexts. Listening to the album is like perusing the abandoned ruins of a shopping mall after the fall of civilization, dispassionately unearthing billboards and broken televisions beneath the rubble. Take “Moontalk”, for instance: stabs of game show synthesizers provide flashes of gaudy gold over the otherwise drab, grey surface provided by the flat-affect vocals. Juxtaposed nonsensically with the occasional sounds of a dial-up tone, it is as if the various technologies of contemporary culture have all caved in on themselves, collapsing into a heap of meaningless obsolescence. If Halo’s emotionless delivery is any indication, she does not mourn their loss, adopting instead a studious, almost scientific stance that interrogates the properties of their decay.
All this considered, it should come as no surprise that Dust‘s cerebral bent is also its biggest liability. Compared to Halo’s previous outings, it is hard to connect to the album on a visceral or immediate level, and there are few moments that provide direct enjoyment. As on the aforementioned “Sun to Solar”, her melodies often drift by unremarkably, each sonic element getting lost in the track’s general soupiness with none ultimately emerging as prominent or memorable. When she does opt for a more melodic approach, as on “Syzygy”, her flat delivery proves suffocating and the song remains stagnant.
Dust, then, encounters the dual problems of being both inaccessible and drab, a unique combination that may thwart even the most intrepid listeners. There are moments where Halo’s vision and sense of humor pierce through the fog, as with her frank admonitions to a bully on “Jelly”: “You are a thief, and you drink too much.” The electro-reggae of “Do U Ever Happen” also provides a rare moment of transcendent musical cohesion, offsetting an otherwise diffuse and occasionally limp record. Laurel Halo’s penchant for abstraction has long served her music well, but Dust veers too far in the direction of academic detachment, suffering from its own inertness.