“Once again,” says Daniel Craig, “the Weeknd.” Craig’s chest muscles are ballooning out of his henley, and he’s shaking his head, as if to say: Can you believe it? Can you believe how great this is? Craig is blissfully unaware that No Time To Die, the James Bond movie he’s here to promote, will not come to theaters for months — if it ever even does come out, if a rampaging virus has not rendered the entire idea of movie theaters obsolete. Strobe lights flicker, keyboards flutter, and the camera zooms in on Abel Tesfaye. He’s wearing his current album-promo uniform: red jacket, black leather driving gloves, a face full of bandages and fake blood and spray-on sweat. Tesfaye sings in that quavering tenor, a sound that’s become so familiar over the past decade. He sounds like a choirboy trying and failing to drag himself out of some squalid ditch. He sounds lost.
Tesfaye stands on an impeccably designed stage, one that seems to be made out of mirrors and neon and polished chrome. He beseeches an ex: “Don’t be scared to live again.” Behind him, Daniel Lopatin, the synth-drone wizard known to most of us as Oneohtrix Point Never, noodles stoically. It’s a strange spectacle. It’s the last spectacle of its kind that we will see for a long time.
This was the last Saturday Night Live musical performance. It happened 12 days ago, and it belongs to a different age. For months, Abel Tesfaye, one of the biggest pop stars of our era, has been building up to today, the day that his new album After Hours arrives in the universe. After Hours is an album recorded with great care and expense, a too-big-to-fail blockbuster from an artist who has sung of his own failures on the grandest stages available. “Scared To Live,” the song that he sung on that SNL stage, is presumably the first song ever to grant songwriting credits to Max Martin, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Elton John. (The two-line “Your Song” interpolation alone probably cost more money than I’ll make in three years.) It’s an album about uncertainty, arriving into an uncertain world. Its timing is terrible.
A few months ago, Abel Tesfaye made his big-screen acting debut, playing his own seven-years-ago self, complete with old-hairdo wig. In its soul-crunching anxiety, the Safdie Brothers’ film worked as a sort of preview for the swirling doom of circa-now daily life. Watching it today is, if possible, even more stressful. Abel Tesfaye spends most of his few minutes onscreen begging for bathroom sex. When he hocks a loogie at Adam Sandler, I want to send a hazmat team into the club to seal it off.
On “Heartless,” the early After Hours single that went directly to #1 in December, Tesfaye calls back to the moment captured in Uncut Gems — the time of his own mysterious arrival. “Seven years I’ve been swimming with the sharks,” he brag-laments. It’s true. Since those early mixtapes set computers ‘puting, the Weeknd has established himself as a brand name in sullen and regretful debauchery. In a Slate piece a few months ago, my colleague Chris Molanphy posited that the Weeknd is the “new AC/DC” — the guy who sings the same sex-dazed lothario blues over and over again, to increasingly baroque levels of success. The Weeknd has a formula, and that formula works.
Since we met him, the Weeknd has been singing sleekly numb synthetic R&B about sleaze-life tribulations. Again and again, he’s let us know that he hates himself for using sex and drugs to shut himself off from the world but that he’s been powerless to stop himself. He’s tweaked and updated that formula, translating it from murky Tumblr-bait to arena-sized pop music, but he hasn’t fundamentally altered it. This has led him directly to the top. The aforementioned “Heartless” — again, a song that essentially debuted at #1 on the Hot 100 — opens with this line: “Never need a bitch, I’m what a bitch need/ Tryna find the one that can fix me.” That’s Tesfaye snarl-boasting and pleading for help in the same breath. That’s the same trick he’s been pulling since we first met him.
After Hours, the Weeknd’s new album, is a breakup record. Tesfaye’s character has been rocked by heartbreak, and he’s not sure how to process it. He misses his ex, and he’s not sure how to express it, so he does it by fantasizing about the two of them dying together: “If I OD, I want you to OD right beside me/ I want you to follow right behind me/ I want you to hold me while I’m smiling, while I’m dying.” He flashes again and again on the idea of dying, and he blacks out while thinking about the emptiness of his own glamorous life: “We’re in hell, it’s disguised as a paradise with flashing lights/ I just wanna believe there’s so much more.” He talks all the shit that he usually talks, but he also offers up straight-up love songs more direct than any he’s ever sung before.
Does anyone care anymore? Should anyone care anymore? Frivolity is baked into the Weeknd’s angel-with-bloody-face iconography, but it’s never been as glaring as it is now. After Hours is a sad rich guy complaining that a girl doesn’t love him anymore, pledging that he’s going to keep fucking random people and snorting random drugs until he doesn’t feel so bad. A couple of weeks ago, I wouldn’t have blinked at that. Today, as an entire world stares down a long and confusing struggle, I have a hard time summoning any empathy for the shit that Abel Tesfaye is talking about. On the streaky, ominous “Escape From LA,” Tesfaye finishes a story about anonymous recording-studio sex with this complaint: “LA girls all look the same/ I can’t recognize/ The same work done on they face/ I don’t criticize.” It’s like: You don’t have to worry about groceries, buddy. What the fuck are you bellyaching about?
Still, the moods explored on After Hours — anxiety, anhedonia, depression — are perfectly suited for the moment, if you can get beyond the actual situations that Tesfaye depicts in his songs. The album sounds incredible. Musically, After Hours exists within the same dark, flickering synthy post-soul territory that has always been the Weeknd’s home. But Tesfaye and his collaborators continue to find new spaces to explore within that edifice. “Too Late” plunges into the polished jitters of early-’00s UK garage. “Hardest To Live” adapts glimmering Max Martin melodies to fit the rushing pulse of car-commercial drum-‘n’-bass. A suite of songs in the middle of the album is pure coke-dusted mid-’80s yuppie club-pop, right down to the saxophone outro on “In Your Eyes.” In its kaleidoscopic, meditative majesty, the title track sounds like a blockbuster-budget Chromatics.
Nobody else could’ve made an album like After Hours. Nobody else would’ve had the pull or the vision to put Oneohtrix Point Never and Max Martin in a room together. Plenty of people have tried to combine elite-aesthete sound clouds with big-money pop music, but nobody else has managed to smush those things into one another hard enough that they become the same thing. The supporting cast of After Hours is full of old Weeknd collaborators: Illangelo, Belly, DaHeala, even Max Martin. Tesfaye has also filled the supporting cast out with people like Metro Boomin and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker — artists whose sounds can be made to fit what Tesfaye does.
Tesfaye remains a hell of a songwriter, too. There are serious hooks all over After Hours. There are punchlines, too. Tesfaye talks slick: “She like my futuristic sounds in the new spaceship/ Futuristic sex, give her Phillip K. Dick.” Tesfaye made the noteworthy decision to record the album without any guest singers. Unless you count the buried-in-the-mix Kevin Parker gurgles on the “Repeat After Me” intro, Tesfaye’s voice is the only one we hear. It never gets boring. His voice is magnificent. Tesfaye’s only gaining greater control of his instrument; he floats airily over these fantastically rich soundscapes that he’s commissioned.
Really, After Hours is everything you could realistically want a pop-superstar album to be. Tesfaye works within the boundaries of the aesthetic that he’s established, but he finds room for new sounds and ideas within those boundaries. He never pushes himself into pretension, but he never lets himself sit too still, either. He’s written catchy songs that will not interrupt the flow of your day. Tesfaye has turned in a remarkably well-made album. He has done his job. But for reasons that are certainly not Tesfaye’s fault, it’s hard to connect with an album like After Hours right now. It already feels like a beautifully crafted artifact from a lost civilization.
In October of 2008, the Diesel brand threw itself a massive 30th-anniversary tent on a Brooklyn pier, in a circus tent erected just for the occasion. A hugely pregnant M.I.A. sang “Paper Planes” with Pharrell. T.I. did “Live Your Life,” with Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos singing the Rihanna part. Chaka Khan performed, and her backing band was Hot Chip. In tiny stages scattered through the tent, acrobats flipped and twirled. Strongmen, ignored in the entrance hall, performed feats. Trapeze artists flew over the crowd. The cast of Gossip Girl walked the red carpet outside. Two weeks earlier, the stock market had crashed. I remember thinking, as I elbowed my way up to the open bar, that this event was the last of its kind, that I’d never do anything like this again. A few weeks later, the website where I was working shut down, and everyone in my office was laid off.
I had fun at that Diesel party. I’m having fun listening to After Hours, too. It’s a good album. It also sounds like the end of something. God only knows how the world will look in a month or two. We might not hear anything like this ever again.
After Hours is out now on XO/Republic.