His latest is a well-crafted concept album using disco-themed purgatory as an affirmation of life.
In the arc of Abel Tesfaye’s career, from a precocious alt-R&B breakout to a Super Bowl-headlining pop superstar, pleasure and pain have always existed in the shadows of a dark room. Even the glittering synths and blinding lights of After Hours, the Weeknd’s remarkable 2020 smash album that pushed him to ever-expanding heights of popularity, only served to sketch out the underbelly of a Vegas-esque world of violence and loneliness. For The Weeknd, happiness, if there even is such a thing, has always been a fleeting, ingested high. Love is a lie you allow yourself to believe to keep the thrum of the night’s hazy euphoria alive.
He says about as much on “Gasoline,” the second song on his new record Dawn FM and the track that is playing as his car crashes and his persona from After Hours is sent into the purgatory that the concept album is ostensibly set in: “It’s 5 A.M., I’m nihilist / I know there’s nothing after this / Obsessing over aftermaths / apocalypse and hopelessness / The only thing I understand / is zero sum of tenderness.” If the Weeknd’s resounding themes have centered around the hollowness of feeling and the spiky solace of self-destruction, on Dawn FM, he has finally achieved the nihilistic abyss of death he’s always edged toward. Yet the result, a deep dive into ‘80s disco and shimmering dance and synth pop, is the brightest vision he’s ever created, and in fact an affirmation — albeit somewhat desperate and cheeky — of life and healing itself.
It’s about time for the Weeknd to change things up, and he appears to know it: “You’ve been in the dark for way too long. It’s time to walk into the light,” says Jim Carrey, who serves as the host of 103.5 Dawn FM, the radio station that, in the framework of the album’s premise, is playing a set of soothing pop hits to ease him into the afterlife. Leave it to the Weeknd to find light in a grisly death and the comfort of purgatory’s dance floor. The record, though, is a predictable shift — it’s in essence a full-throttle, funk-drenched commitment to the throwback maximalist synth of “Blinding Lights,” perhaps a strategic attempt at leaning into what turned into Billboard’s top No. 1 song of all time.
Yet Dawn FM doesn’t read like a calculated cash-in; in fact it is at once his boldest, most cohesive album yet, and also the one whose tracks provide the least immediately sharp highs. “Take My Breath,” the lead single whose far superior extended version here and perfectly sequenced placement in the album completely redefines its impact, is the most immediate crowd-pleaser.
But its chorus and ambition (specifically on the extended version) serve as one of the few automatic hits on an album that is dedicated most of all to its conceptual conceit of inducing a sort of fever dream of afterlife in the discotheque — a practically theatrical focus that is admirable and intensely well-crafted, but also at times limiting. Tracks often vibrate into the next without notice, save for the occasional radio host pep talk from Carrey, and some of the most propulsive production, for instance, comes on the interlude/commercial skit of “Every Angel is Terrifying.”
Yet, even as an artistic experiment, it’s hard to complain. It’s an album that solidifies the Weeknd as one of our most ambitious pop stars today, a superstar whose rising heights are only pushing him to expand himself as a high-concept visionary (he recently said this album is part of “a new trilogy.”) Executive produced by the Weeknd, Max Martin, and Oneohtrix Point Never, the sound is slick, rich, and fully realized. The production on “Is There Someone Else?”, arguably the best track on the album, sounds as though it breaks into a new horizon for the retro synths that it and the rest of the album persistently call back to. The character-voice on “Gasoline,” another standout, is daringly strange and yet quickly one of the most indelible moments from the entire album.
The trio of “Out of Time,” “Don’t Break My Heart,” and “I Heard You’re Married” (with a surprisingly fitting verse from Lil Wayne) threaten to collectively grate as they all indulge in a version of a swaying, overly sultry groove, but even still, they each individually have an infectious charm. “Less Than Zero” is an especially surprising earworm as an acoustic disco track that eases the record out.
Throughout, the Weeknd is grasping at a new kind of wisdom and hopefulness — albeit one that can feel flimsy and embellished when induced by a comatose state — even as he returns to some old impulses. On “Sacrifice,” he is still steeled off from love and commitment, but he’s also telling his partner that “life is still worth living.” He spends most of the record waffling between chasing after a lover and spurning her, but there’s also a sense throughout that death has forced him to partly confront the cold fact of his loneliness — compare the opening song “Alone Again” from After Hours to the opening line of Dawn FM, “This part I do alone” — a realization that has brought him clarity, and perhaps healing. Carrey’s guidance and an interlude from Quincy Jones about coming to understand the long-term scars of childhood trauma certainly indicate his desire to do so at the very least.
Ironically, this newfound understanding and acceptance that comes with purgatory has only pushed him to want to go back and to try, a reflection of Tesfaye himself, perhaps, having come to see life anew. On “Here We go… Again,” he sheds the voice of his persona with a verse with “Reminder”-style flexes about the Super Bowl and dating a movie star that may or may not be Angelina Jolie. It’s the only moment on the record that we truly see Tesfaye himself, without the costume of character, and that we also believe there’s growth, even stability, underneath all this familiar boasting and after all that hedonism. “You’ve rather loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” he sings. It’s a surprising declaration from a singer whose entire discography has scoffed, druggily numbed-off, at that very notion. But he’s different now, he’s been absorbed into the light. “Make me believe in make-beliefs,” he declares at the start of the album, truly afraid of oblivion for once. For the first time, he really does seem to believe.