Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: The Weeknd Dawn FM

XO/Republic
2022
XO/Republic
2022

The first blockbuster album of 2022 is executive produced by Max Martin and Oneohtrix Point Never. Beautiful. Never change, Abel Tesfaye.

But also: Please never stop changing. The collision of Martin, the mastermind behind dozens of #1 hits by artists from *NSYNC to Taylor Swift, and 0PN, the experimental electronic producer and composer born Daniel Lopatin, is the latest (and greatest?) manifestation of the perverse arthouse/mainstream balance Tesfaye has been striking his whole career. Yet despite the persistence of his unmistakable point of view, the Ethiopian-Canadian singer-songwriter-producer has undergone a radical metamorphosis in the 11 years since House Of Balloons — or at least his pop-star avatar the Weeknd has — and on Dawn FM, out today, he repeatedly makes it known.

“I don’t want to be a prisoner to who I used to be,” Tesfaye sings on one of the new album’s many impeccable synth-funk tracks, just before declaring his desire for monogamy: “I swear I changed my ways for the better/ I wanna be with you forever.” In multiple instances he plays both the fragile soul desperate to be loved and the caretaker ready to tenderly nurse a lover back from the kind of devastation this character used to incite. And then there’s the breakup ballad that finds that familiar high-pitched quiver insisting, “For the last few months I been workin’ on me, baby/ There’s so much trauma in my life/ I’ve been so cold to the ones who love me, baby/ I look back now and I realize.” The lothario from “Glass Table Girls” is broken and contrite, and he’s making real progress with his therapist.

A spooky edge remains in the Weeknd’s music, but Tesfaye more often seems like the haunted than the haunter. Still, it would be too simple to say his on-record persona is softening in tandem with his true self, the “sober liteX-Files fanatic who enjoys long walks through the streets of LA and longs to be a parent someday. For one thing, the sweeping disco epic “Take My Breath,” Dawn FM‘s only advance single, hinges on an erotic asphyxiation metaphor as thinly veiled as the cocaine references in “Can’t Feel My Face.” It’s not the only mention of strangulation on the album. But even when those old Weeknd tendencies persist, Tesfaye keeps finding exciting new ways to present them — and though it’s too early to make any definitive proclamations, Dawn FM might be his most dazzling display to date.

That’s no small feat following After Hours, the pop-R&B opus that spun off three #1 hits in three separate years, cemented the Weeknd’s status as a Super-Bowl-grade celebrity, and inspired the best reviews of his career. (In a GQ profile last year, Tesfaye said he reads everything written about him. Hi Abel!) After Hours boasted unforgettable visuals — a mustachioed Tesfaye in a red suit, his face increasingly injured and grotesque — and a sonic palette richer, warmer, and more immaculate than anything in his catalog. Just as importantly, the descents into drudgery that undercut the momentum on most Weeknd full-lengths were all but vanquished thanks to his most consistently engaging songwriting yet. It seemed like the album he’d spent his whole career building toward.

At a time when he might have enjoyed such creative and commercial success, the pandemic plunged Tesfaye into despair along with the rest of us. In an online listening session for critics this week, he explained that in 2020 he began writing music that he eventually decided was too dark, “way too sad,” and not at all cathartic. He scrapped that and instead developed the Dawn FM concept: the limbo of pandemic life presented as a sort of purgatory, symbolized by gridlock in a traffic tunnel. The exit is visible ahead, but for now we’re stuck waiting, with “one radio station guiding us into the light until we’re fully engulfed,” 103.5 Dawn FM. At the start, in his best faceless DJ voice, Tesfaye’s friend and neighbor Jim Carrey beckons, “You’ve been in the dark for way too long. It’s time to walk into the light and accept your fate with open arms,” then promises another hour of “commercial ‘free yourself’ music.” Later on, faux advertisements are narrated by Tesfaye and Josh Safdie, whose 2019 film Uncut Gems first brought Lopatin and Tesfaye together.

The radio conceit clearly mirrors the last Oneohtrix Point Never album, which Tesfaye executive produced. But as hinted at by visual accompaniments involving an elderly version of the Weeknd looking scared and deflated, Dawn FM has its own distinct fixations (regret and redemption, heartbreak and ecstasy, commitment and abandonment, mortality and metaphysics) too dense to be untangled in just a few listens. And whereas Magic Oneohtrix Point Never was an oblique experimental LP commenting on the idea of pop radio, Dawn FM is a pleasure-center pop record under a weirdo façade — exactly the kind of thing the Weeknd has always specialized in, yet unlike anything he has ever released.

The three-and-a-half-year gap between Starboy and After Hours contributed to the sense that the latter marked the beginning of a new era for the Weeknd (2018 EP My Dear Melancholy notwithsanding). In many ways Dawn FM feels like an extension of that new imperial phase. With help from Martin and Lopatin, both of whom worked on After Hours, Tesfaye has refined and refracted the MJ-grade stadium-pop elements that long since crept into his music, relying less than ever on the kind of dark-tinted R&B he pioneered in his initial mixtape trilogy. Dawn FM replaces that foundation with his own twisted take on a range of dance-pop subgenres that call back to the early ’80s — disco, boogie, electro, funk, new wave.

The journey begins with a suite of tracks crafted with Lopatin, highlighted by “Gasoline,” which finds Tesfaye trading out his usual falsetto for a blunt, almost robotic post-punk affect over squiggly keyboard melodies, percolating synths, and hard-slapping retro drum machines. Lyrics about debauched pre-sunrise phone conversations hearken back to “The Hills” — “It’s 5AM, my time again/ I’m calling and you know it’s me” — but the sonic context could not be more different. The vocal shift is especially startling, like angel-voiced Thom Yorke descending into garbled mumbles on Kid A. And although “Gasoline” is the most radical departure on the album — Tesfaye mostly returns to his signature agile timbre later on — it sets the stage for many transcendent bangers to come.

From there Dawn FM segues directly into a series of impressive genre exercises that also work as thrilling pop songs, starting with the flickering keyboard breakdown and electro-disco pulse of “How Do I Make You Love Me?” The Martin-helmed “Take My Breath” remains exhilarating, all frantic keyboard arpeggios and relentless percussive guitar and bobbing-finger hooks. Recent Weeknd pals Swedish House Mafia laced “Sacrifice” with a sick processed guitar loop and an utterly smooth Alicia Myers sample, the closest Dawn FM gets to former Weeknd collaborators Daft Punk. Even when the album slows down, as on the funky interlude that finds music legend Quincy Jones unpacking his own childhood trauma, that sense of body-moving rhythm rarely ceases. Nor does expert curation like having hopeless romantic Tyler, The Creator rap over soft-rock schlock by Bruce Johnston, the part-time Beach Boy who wrote Barry Manilow’s “I Write The Songs.”

As the album edges out of its low-key middle stretch toward its concluding epiphany, it frequently veers into sweaty synthetic funk and boogie tracks, like the DaHeala production “Best Friends,” with its commanding staccato keyboard bassline. Often these songs are just hazy enough to resemble the chillwave that was popping on the blogs just before the Weeknd first arrived, especially Tommy Brown’s “Is There Someone Else?” The alignment of Tesfaye, Lil Wayne, and Calvin Harris on “I Heard You’re Married” has me hopeful that Harris might someday grace us with Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 2. The grooves are heavy and abundant. The scope feels epic, like Lemonade or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but even the midtempo tracks are too brisk to be weighed down by their own opulence. Only on the sleepy and inert “Starry Eyes” does the existential party let up.

More than a decade into his career, the Weeknd knows better than to let his Big Ideas derail an endorphin-rush crowd-pleaser. At the same time, he is better than ever at incorporating his more avant-garde tastes into prospective radio hits. Thus, Dawn FM‘s conclusion involves two separate Max Martin cowrites that are both stranger than “Blinding Lights” but could feasibly follow it to the top of the charts. First, there is he meditative yet rhythmically charged “Don’t Break My Heart,” a dancefloor anthem at the intersection of passion, longing, and fear. Then, after gliding all over “I Heard You’re Married,” Tesfaye hits the accelerator for the nervy and euphoric “Less Than Zero,” a grand finale that had me scribbling such notes as “Is that a children’s choir?” and “Clap Your Hands Say Yeah type shit?” As a pop song, it is a triumph, but it leaves the Weeknd somewhere short of triumphant: “I try to hide it but I know you know me/ I try to fight it but I’d rather be free/ I’ll always be less than zero/ You tried your best with me, I know.”

For something like resolution, you’ll have to stay tuned for one more track. Of all the surprises on Dawn FM, the biggest one might be that its most emotionally ravaging sequence belongs to Jim Carrey. “Phantom Regret,” a spoken-word piece by Carrey set to music by Tesfaye and Lopatin, works as both an epilogue and a summation of the album’s philosophical bent. With an almost Seussian cadence — funny coming from a guy who once played the Grinch — Carrey slides back into his eerily calm radio voice to instruct and reflect, “now that all future plans have been postponed.” He carries on about letting go of your pain and your grudges, emptying out your heavy heart, trusting that you’ll bloom if you just turn to the light. “God knows life is chaos, but He made one thing true,” Carrey intones. “You gotta unwind your mind, train your soul to align, and dance til you find that divine boogaloo.” On paper it is absurd. But like so many of the Weeknd’s absurdities, in practice it is a revelation.

Dawn FM is out now on XO/Republic.

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