A kinder gentler Weeknd delivers 2022: Not one but two songs about erotic asphyxiation are included as a type of light at the end (???) of our long pandemic tunnel.
The first is “Take My Breath,” which was released as an advance single off the Canadian pop-soul auteur’s brand-new “Dawn FM” last summer, even as his previous LP’s smash “Blinding Lights” clung on the Hot 100 stubbornly.
The second track is “Gasoline,” a smooth robot-funk number that appropriately kicks off “Dawn FM” following an introduction starring Jim Carrey as a clapping radio DJ informing his listeners they’ve “been in the dark for way too long.”
As percussive synth chords ricochet off the Weeknd’s high, begging voice, he sings, “I wrap my hands round your neck.” “You like it when I squeeze you all the time.”
A kinder gentler Weeknd delivers 2022
The Weeknd’s long-running bad-boy act — the devotion to extreme behaviour (and disdain for bourgeois stability) that has driven his music since he emerged more than a decade ago with a series of shadowy internet mixtapes — would’ve played as part of these references to risky sexual gratification in the past.
The rough sex has a softer edge on “Dawn FM,” which came out Thursday night, just days after the singer revealed it was finished; here, in exquisitely rendered tunes rich with echoes of Michael Jackson and Depeche Mode, he’s illuminating a path to fulfilment, perhaps even happiness, and crucially, without renouncing his old predilections.
Of course, he has a lot to be thankful for: The Weeknd’s 2020 “After Hours” album went double-platinum and led to a performance at this year’s Super Bowl halftime show, confirming the superstar potential he began exploring when he linked up with hit-making producer Max Martin in 2015.
Despite the fact that the album was infamously snubbed by the Grammys, the Weeknd arguably won a high-profile battle with the Recording Academy, which recently revised its contentious nomination procedure, claiming that it was not because of the Weeknd, but certainly not because of him.
He brags about earning “a quarter-bil’ on an off-year” and making an unnamed movie-star girlfriend “scream like Neve Campbell” in one of the highlights of “Dawn FM,” “Here We Go… Again,” in which he brags about earning “a quarter-bil’ on an off-year” and making an unnamed movie-star girlfriend “scream like Neve Campbell.”
This record, though, is as much about manifesting contentment as it is about reflecting it, according to the Weeknd. The 31-year-old singer, born Abel Tesfaye, revealed in a Zoom session with journalists this week that he began writing “Dawn FM” after putting aside a more depressing piece that he determined was too “emotionally harmful” to continue working on.
“Dawn FM,” which builds on that prologue with Carrey’s infrequent radio banter, offers a vision of escape to COVID-era listeners in an imagined purgatory he likened to standstill traffic, according to the Weeknd.
(Carrey, who apparently contacted the Weeknd over a mutual interest in telescopes, puts in a lot of effort in the role, instructing people to “unwind your mind, teach your soul to align, and dance till you reach that divine boogaloo.”)
The Weeknd translates his optimism into songs about relationships, which aren’t always healthy; “Sacrifice” is about a man who lies to a lady about how he’ll never leave, while “I Heard You’re Married” is self-explanatory.
However, the song has a sensitivity that replaces the cynicism that characterised the Weeknd’s earlier work — a belief in the potential of happiness rather than the certainty of abuse.
After “Sacrifice,” there’s “A Tale by Quincy,” a gorgeous “Off the Wall”-style ballad in which the Weeknd confronts the cold reality of a partner’s rejection over a creamy R&B arrangement; after that, there’s “Out of Time,” a gorgeous “Off the Wall”-style ballad in which the Weeknd confronts the cold reality of a partner’s rejection.
(“I remember when I held you / You begged me to remain with your drowning eyes,” he sings, not relishing the recollection.) The circumstance isn’t encouraging, but the implications are: Here’s a man who is beginning to comprehend the repercussions of trauma, if only to aid others in the future.
Other songs demonstrate a similar emotional intelligence: “Is There Someone Else?” establishes a moral boundary when it comes to sneaking behind someone’s back; “Best Friends” talks to a woman about the narrator’s exact limitations. With a chorus about voluntarily giving into love and an endearingly tossed-off guest verse from Tyler, the Creator about the importance of a prenup, “Here We Go… Again” could be the album’s most idealistic and pragmatic cut.
When you compare the Weeknd’s convincing old-age makeup on the cover of “Dawn FM” to the bandaged post-op plastic-surgery look he wore throughout the “After Hours” era, his point becomes clear: Some problems can be solved through artificial intervention, while others simply require the perspective afforded by maturity.
The Weeknd’s great record-making, which he did with a relatively small group led by Martin and Daniel Lopatin, sells this message (a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never). The melodies ache with longing and sadness, and the songs dance and glitter just right.
These vocals, too! The Weeknd sings more beautifully than he ever has on “Dawn FM,” not least in the mournful-ecstatic “Less Than Zero” (get that knowing mid-’80s title) and “Here We Go… Again,” where he lays his soft voice against a rich choir backdrop produced miraculously by Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys. (There’s also a drowsy but crisp Lil Wayne in “I Heard You’re Married,” where he genuinely tells a girlfriend that he can’t be her “side bitch.”)
To put it another way, 2022 appears to be another horrific experience. So it’s only natural that the year’s first fantastic album be a feel-good Weeknd tune.