We may have noticed that there was something universally, perverse about Weeknd’s music when songs from his 2015 album appeared on the 50 shades of Gray soundtrack and were nominated for a Kids’ Choice Award. To think that Abel Tesfaye – who rose to fame anonymously with sweaty mixes on Trade Winds for breakfast and brain-burning pills – would ever have played the Super Bowl would have seemed weird even to his fans. But after a long album launch for the 2020s After hours where the singer had his face covered in bruises, blood and bandages, he was there on 2021’s most-watched TV show – 92 million people tuned in – looking like a quarter of a billion dollars. A decade after his initial rise to fame, he had ascended to true Starboy status, shimmering in a red sequin suit, performing hit after hit from his catalog, the pop antihero taking his rightful place on the throne.
After hours was a dancefloor record released when every dancefloor was under lockdown, an attempt to bridge the gap between a dejected character and Billboard’s retro-funk, flirting with the two impulses without committing to either. At Dawn FM, Released essentially without fanfare, the Weeknd bet on a biblical fantasia, mixing thrill and fear with euphoric disco and 80s R&B with stakes of life and death. And for the first time in all of his blind chronicles of debauchery, he seems a little scared about it.
Dawn FM is a concept album, in a way. In interviews, Tesfaye has said the album plays like listening to some sort of contemporary adult radio station as you sit in a traffic jam in the tunnel, only the tunnel is purgatory and the light at the end of the tunnel is the death. For the most part, Tesfaye wins this frame – he doesn’t throw away as many half-baked theories about the meaning of life as he pushes the looming fear and dread that is inherent in him. He filled his early career songs with metaphorical self-destruction; on “Gasoline”, he sings the self-immolation: “It’s 5am / I’m nihilist / I know there’s nothing left after that,” he mutters with a disarming British accent. , unceremoniously summarizing all his discography. His previous itch was due to drugged forgetfulness, but Dawn FM is all about annihilation. Interspersed with his real neighbor Jim Carrey playing a blessed radio DJ and parody commercials for the afterlife, Dawn FM takes the Weeknd on a literal death drive.
This architecture gives the Weeknd a smart cover to experiment beyond the limits of his previous work. Past songs have traced the course of a single tortured party or a frenzied, frenzied night; here, he opts for more grandeur. He produced the album alongside pop powerhouse Max Martin and experimental electronic musician Daniel Lopatin aka Oneohtrix Point Never, and the two work like a devil and an angel perched on his shoulders – Martin’s glittering effects, abstractions and the absurdity of Lopatin – alongside the production of Calvin Harris, Swedish House Mafia and longtime collaborator Oscar Holter.
The result is a singular sound, with entropy built into the catchy dance floors. You can hear it in the panoramic bleating of “How Do I Make You Love Me”, the buzz and haze of “Every Angel Is Terrifying”, the electronic scribbles on “Don’t Break My Heart”, before The Weeknd do not make a line. like, “I almost died in the nightclub.” Even the songs that most closely resemble Weeknd’s classic fare – the jaded beat of “Best Friends”, the adjacent cadence to the rap that begins “Here We Go… .gain” – are studded with squeaky strings and wiggling synths. The sound is decadent because it is so jarring; each song is lavishly saturated with instrumental quirks. Dawn FM is a cavernous album, and the surprises on its tracks can feel like hidden crystalline chambers. An excerpt from a 1983 Japanese city pop song slips into a shimmering ballad; a member of the Beach Boys cooed the backing vocals as Tyler the creator yelled, “You’re going to sign this marriage contract,” four times in a row.
The album works best when the Weeknd spirals out. The five-minute version of “Take My Breath” stretches out in a shimmering struggle – you can hear him fighting for air, his gasps echoing through the rhythm of the stride. He negotiates limits with a lover on “Sacrifice”, alternating between devotion and challenge; “When you cry and say that you miss me, I lie and tell you that I will never leave,” he hisses, but admits how compromised he is already. He goes through paranoia and jealousy, only making promises when he feels threatened. “The only thing I understand is zero-sum tenderness,” he hums at the start of the album, and for much of the record he oscillates between expressing that cynicism towards romance and defeating it. , like on the “Starry Eyes”. It’s a catharsis-ready ballad, but it tends towards a limp conclusion: “Let me be there for your heart,” he moans, a syrupy pledge that seems to come out of nowhere and oversimplifies the tribute. that it costs him.
Yet it is Weeknd’s most ambitious project in terms of sound and scope, and the most successful record he has released in years. Part of the thrill comes from hearing him take himself a little less seriously, like the wink in his voice as he sings station id bumpers in the required jazzy harmony. There are all the little notes of grace, too: Quincy Jones detailing how childhood trauma wreaked havoc on her adult relationships; director Josh Safdie reciting a stanza from Rilke’s “Duino Elegies”, muttering that “Beauty is the terror we endure”. That too could be a thesis statement for Weeknd’s work – horror embedded in compulsion, the fear that anything worthwhile will corrode. But it is the pursuit of beauty that enchants this album, the search for the sublime, the desire to transform a grid ramp towards death into something incandescent. “You have to be Heaven to see Heaven,” Jim Carrey muses on the album’s last track, a winding spoken poem that unfolds like a prayer. It’s a beautiful thought, an instruction, and a plea – to let go of regret, to empty out shame, to tinker happiness out of chaos, for as long as we can.
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