At the midpoint between restless and contemplative lies Laurel Halo. The Berlin-by-the-way-of-Ann-Arbor producer’s releases tend to veer off in too many directions to be suitable for focused tasks, like studying. But they’re also fairly low-key. Halo’s tracks are full of activity, but she knows how to pace them to avoid overload. This quality hasn’t always been present in her music (see: her early Hour Logic EP, which was ultimately too meandering to create a consistent mood), but over time, she’s become one of the most compelling working producers. Dust, Halo’s third album and first in four years, is a high point in her discography, working multiple, sometimes disparate, elements together while letting them retain their identities in a way few others could.

Dust is an album to lose yourself in, but not in a traditional sense of the phrase. It’s not exactly immersive. Each track, with the exception of interludes, (‘Arschkriecher’ and ‘Nicht Ohne Risiko’) works on its own, and not once while playing it have I forgotten I was listening to music. Yet, that awareness has been wholly conducive to my enjoyment. The album has a free-form sensibility, while also feeling blueprinted. Halo’s confidence in each detail shines through and makes listening to Dust an exercise in surrendering yourself to the unexpected joys of transparency in experimental music.

Said transparency is largely due to the strong vocal presence. It’s no coincidence that Quarantine, a showcase of Halo’s voice, could be called her breakthrough. While Halo would definitely be considered a producer first and a singer second, it’s not due to her having an off-putting voice. She simply employs her vocals like any other element on a track: bringing in when appropriate and presenting in a straightforward manner that keeps her compositions well-rounded. She’s not bidding for an opening spot on Adele’s next tour, but instead embracing the wonders of contorting one’s vocal delivery in as many ways possible. On opener ‘Sun to Solar’, Halo shifts from sounding like someone in a supermarket recalling their shopping list to that same person having an existential moment later in the checkout line. “Where does this grinding grind?” Halo asks as sub-bass and live drums work diligently to add emphasis to her questions while not contributing answers. ‘Koinos’ finds her vocals distorted into a digital swirl as she accuses something of being “just another lie.” Later, on penultimate track ‘Do U Ever Happen?’ she asks that very question over a barebones instrumental. Listening closely enough will surely spark wondering if ‘U’ in fact, do ever happen and what the ramifications for not doing so could possibly be.

She’s joined by the likes of vocalist Klein and producer Lafawndah on ‘Jelly’, which has all the makings of a potential underground crossover hit for Halo. The muffled bass drum, hazy synths, chipmunk vocals of the chorus and memorable one-liners like “Sometimes I know not to drink too much,” and “My eyes back there in the mirror where I left them,” could be tightened up. However, ‘Jelly’ stays the course in being unmistakably a Laurel Halo work while also possessing earworm qualities. It ups the energy levels a bit towards the end, and the concluding vocals are graceful in a way the rest of the album isn’t and doesn’t try to be. Halo has a strong understanding of effective pop songwriting, in choruses and verses equally. She wisely brings these classic elements into her nearly fully-developed signature style, rather than abandoning her idiosyncrasies like Ally Sheedy at the end of The Breakfast Club. ‘Syzygy,’ perhaps the best pop song of Halo’s career thus far, offers stories about a demon encounter that becomes rather sororal.

Uniqueness is worth little without a tangible point of sorts. Even if an album goes in a multitude of directions, it shouldn’t feel as though its creator is wasting the listener’s time by throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. Part of the charm of Dust is how it feels developed with a genuinely curious mindset. ‘Moontalk’ is one of the most deliriously exciting tracks in Halo’s discography thus far; bouncy drums skitter about along with phone dial and laughter samples, while Halo breathily offers hypotheticals about eggshells without aftertaste and hearing the moon talk (not necessarily to anyone in particular). In an interview with Mixmag, Halo referred to Dust as “the happiest album I have made.” While her past releases haven’t been terribly bleak, Dust has a much greater sense of joviality. The playfulness of ‘Moontalk’, ‘Jelly’, and even the more sinister ‘Who Won?’ (which sounds like ASMR only without any relaxation), make this a fun album without ever feeling one-note.

In the aforementioned interview, Halo spoke about rejecting pressure to release new albums at a faster rate. “Music is not about being successful or getting gigs,” Halo said, “it’s about making something true to yourself.” She began work on Dust in early 2015 and brought in guests ranging from Julia Holter to Michael Beharie and Diamond Terrifier to help her perfect the project. It’s her most complete-feeling album to date, and never seems like Halo is trying to please anyone but herself. Yet, she also manages to create emotional bridges through the sincerity of her compositions. This is the M.O. of Laurel Halo: first she gets your attention, then she gets your affection.