Photo Credit: Courtesy Republic Records
Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye’s After Hours wasn’t just a success, it was a record-breaking triumph. The album’s second single “Blinding Lights” spent over a year in the Top 10 and was recently declared the biggest Billboard Hot 100 hit of all time. Meanwhile, “Save Your Tears” – buoyed by a remix featuring Ariana Grande – reached the apex of the charts in late Spring of 2021; becoming a credible contender for song of the summer in the process.
All of this is to say that the specter of After Hours has loomed inescapably large over music for the last two years. The album’s prolonged success turned The Weeknd from a hit-maker into a certified star – with the 31-year-old having enjoyed the coveted honor of singing at the Super Bowl half-time show last year. It did, however, make the daunting task of following up After Hours seem like a mission destined to fail and, sure enough, it did seem initially as though over-saturation was beginning to become a problem for Abel. His first solo release post-After Hours “Take My Breath” ranked among the very best songs he’d ever released, and yet it failed to reach the Top 5 upon release and ultimately lacked the staying power of his defining hits. It seemed that despite his ever-improving craftsmanship, The Weeknd may be entering his so-called ‘flop era’.
Taking a cue, perhaps, from Taylor Swift’s career revitalizing, surprise release Folklore, The Weeknd announced his fifth studio album Dawn FM with just days’ notice. Rather than drag the album cycle along with a series of pre-release singles whose success was destined to pale to that of “Blinding Lights”, Tesfaye instead created the biggest musical event of the year so far. His bet – that fans could be relied upon to consume the album wholly in large enough numbers to save it from failure – is one that already seems to be paying off; with Dawn FM having already entered the British charts at the top spot.
If After Hours was the sound of the Weeknd paying homage to the sounds of the ’80s, while updating them for the modern era, Dawn FM is the sound of him fully devoting himself to the ambiance of that era’s sound. Take away the features from Lil Wayne and Tyler, The Creator, tweak a few lyrics, and you could almost be convinced this was actually a lost ’80s classic.
What Dawn FM lacks in sonic innovation, it more than makes up for in the sheer technical perfection of its execution. These are 16 near-faultless synth-pop numbers that make for some of the most consistently compelling music of Tesfaye’s career. Based loosely around the concept of ‘music for the apocalypse’ – a concept largely sold by Jim Carrey’s haunting radio presenter interludes – these are songs whose sonic vibrancy often hides darker truths.
Like much of the Weeknd’s defining music, sexual deviance is a defining theme of Dawn FM – sexual aggression is a defining theme of the album’s first full-length song “Gasoline”, while “Here We Go…Again” sees Tesfaye brag to an ex about his ability to pleasure a new lover. However, much of the remainder of Dawn FM showcases an uncharacteristic level of self-reflection, with “Best Friends” seeing Abel recognize the lingering scars of past love and backing away from a blossoming relationship as a result.
Still, Dawn FM is an unmistakably dark album for the most part. Carrey pops up at regular intervals to remind us starkly of the listener’s impending doom, while The Weeknd follows up with plenty of references to nihilism, end-times, insomnia, emptiness, overdoses, and death (and that’s all just on one song). There’s something consistently unnerving, but oddly captivating, about the constant contrast between the peppy sounds of these songs and their increasingly sinister lyrical underbelly; making you want to dance at one moment, and solemnly reflect at another. Though, ultimately, it makes these songs perfect for our in-between, COVID-19 times; perfect for the club, but also perfect for an audience of one in your living room.