Let’s go back to the start. The Weeknd emerged in 2011 as a, believe it or not, anonymous artist, releasing a trilogy of dark, alt-R&B free mixtapes online. They told sordid tales of drug-addled hedonism, portraying the man behind the name, Abel Tesfaye, as a nihilistic, unsympathetic antagonist. They were captivating and musically adventurous, simultaneously tapping into the bass-heavy, post-dubstep production zeitgeist, as well as sampling indie artists like Beach House and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Then, following the lukewarm critical and commercial reception of debut album proper, Kiss Land, Tesfaye entered a sort of second act. He seemed hellbent on mainstream success, developing a watered-down version of his persona and music and embracing 50 Shades of Grey tie-ins and features with Ed Sheeran. And boy did it work: The Weeknd became astronomically successful, but his albums were bloated and delivered diminishing returns.
With last album After Hours, he entered his third act. Seemingly inspired by spending time with the Safdie Brothers and synth experimentalist Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never, on the 2019 film Uncut Gems, the artistry returned. In character as a red-blazered maverick, he embraced 1980s revivalism in synth-heavy music and cinematic visuals, which transcended music videos to cover live performances and the half time show at the Superbowl. I have a long-standing fascination with mainstream artists who use their platform to explore interesting ideas because they bring weirdness to the masses – and After Hours seemed to be The Weeknd – finally – doing just this.
All of which brings us to Dawn FM, which leans even further into the high concept of After Hours. Replete with interludes, jingles, infomercials and poems, Tesfaye’s latest explores the aftermath of After Hours’ doomed excess: a protagonist who has died and is fumbling in a purgatory before whatever comes next. Alongside The Weeknd, the album’s executive producers are Max Martin (pop superproducer who wrote ‘Baby One More Time’) and Lopatin (an experimentalist who once released an album of slowed down elevator music). The result is a collection of insanely catchy Giorgio Moroder-esque synthpop jams surrounded by a surreal radio aesthetic markedly similar to Lopatin’s own 2020 album, Magic Oneohtrix Point Never. Sound good?
Well as far as I’m concerned, you can juice this combo up and inject it into my veins. I’ve held off on waxing lyrical about this album to avoid overreacting, but 3 weeks on from release, its quality is unmistakable. In about 300 days’ time, Dawn FM will be a fixture in all of those tedious end of year lists that we’ve just escaped from – and rightly so.
What I absolutely love about this album is how it embraces the album format. Tesfaye has always had a sense of theatre, and has been meticulous in the presentation of his ideas – but he’s never realised it on a record like this. From the birdsong that opens Dawn FM we’re completely immersed in this world, as its many parts – from pop bangers to atmospheric interludes – are seamlessly melded together. And a lot of that is down to the attention to detail and the texture around the songs. After Hours had me hunting for hints of the Oneohtrix Point Never influence, but here it’s everywhere. Fans of Lopatin’s soundtracks or albums will know that he’s obsessed with kitschy synth sounds, and I love that he’s brought this oddness to such a huge artist. This isn’t just in the Jim Carrey-voiced presenter patter and jingles that bookend songs like ‘Out of Time’ and ‘Here We Go…Again’, but across the big singles. Take those rising and falling tones that begin ‘Gasoline’ or the incongruous slight beat delay on the final chorus line in ‘How Do I Make You Love Me?’ I wasn’t in the studio, but his fingers seem to be all over this – and it makes for an incredibly cohesive experience.
And then there’s the songs. The Weeknd has a catalogue of great pop songs that depict a self-loathing, self-destructive and emotionless state of mind. But here, the melancholy seems to focus on the doubts below the surface. Regret and longing haunts much of the lyricism on this record, evident in the titles (‘Out of Time’, ‘Is There Someone Else?’, ‘Don’t Break My Heart’) as much as the lyricism. It does a fine job of lending some realism to the narrative – these are the feelings we’d all have when confronted so comprehensively by our own mortality, right?
Thankfully, this dour state of affairs doesn’t infiltrate the sound which is consistently irresistible. The album’s first half pulses with an urgent disco energy. ‘Gasoline’ is underpinned by this propulsive synth beat which continues through ‘How Do I Make You Love Me?’ and then, ingeniously, seamlessly blends into an extended intro of lead single ‘Take My Breath’. It’s a masterful touch which turns an unremarkable single into an essential part of the album’s rhythm. ‘Sacrifice’ then begins with a funky guitar riff which sets the tone for a Quincy Jones-voiced interlude and ‘Out of Time’, a downtempo highlight. I keep using the word ‘seamless’, but the way this record is constructed is just that, and the opening half is just incredibly good.
A couple of quibbles creep into the second half. Features from Tyler, The Creator and Lil Wayne add nothing to their songs. ‘Best Friends’ feels very slight, adding little to the narrative. And the album’s out and out highlights are mostly at the front of the record. But there are a couple later ones: ‘Is There Someone Else?’ is a night time rumination reminiscent of past Weeknd-collaborators Daft Punk, and ‘Don’t Break My Heart’ has some of Tesfaye’s best vocals, his soaring pleas evoking a desperation that sounds compelling in the album’s context.
And it all ends, quite impeccably, with ‘Phantom Regret by Jim’, a Jim Carrey-penned and voiced ode to letting go and accepting your fate. In its eerie synths and deliciously poetic lines (“And if your broken heart’s heavy when you step on the scale / You’ll be lighter than air when they pull back the veil”), it’s the album in miniature: a surreal and highly evocative creation that nails its concept. The Weeknd has faced career-long comparisons to Problematic Music Megastar™ Michael Jackson, and Dawn FM can very clearly be compared to Thriller in sound and concept. And while it certainly lacks originality in comparison, and it’d be a stretch to say it says anything meaningful, like the 80s classic it executes its ideas incredibly well. 2022 dawns with a stunner.
Words by Tom Burrows
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