It’s been a few years since the Weeknd went full-on pop star. Early in his career, the Canadian crooner refused to reveal his identity and sang dark songs about sex, drugs, and longing. His seminal 2011 mixtape, House of Balloons, was like the woozy soundtrack to an endless, libidinous loop of willful couch crashing. If it seemed like there wasn’t always confidence behind his debaucherous asides — his bruised tenor favored stops and starts, brutal fits and murmurs, run-on rants — that likely was intentional, part of his overall brilliance. It was almost like he was trying to steel himself for a night of very bad decisions he was about to make over and over again.
Since his big-leagues level-up, though, the Weeknd has struggled to maintain some of that brooding authenticity. Fans of his infamous 2012 Trilogy compilation relished in the decadence of their antihero, who sang like he’d slept under the coolest bridge in some seedy city where the predominant existential questions were always, “Wait, where am I? What are we even doing?” Conversely, 2016’s Starboy, for all its blissful highs, began to feel like one bloated, never-ending fashion week runway. Thankfully, on his fifth album, Dawn FM, the Weeknd focuses those interstellar ambitions to anoint us with the most enchanting music to the portal through purgatory.
We love our artists fucked up, frankly. There’s something in the deep recesses of self-induced suffering that seems to bring out the best in them. But it’s all fun and games until they wind up a walking self-help aisle. The 16 songs on Dawn FM don’t grapple with the idea of addiction in the way we’ve come to expect from him (none of the addled “glass-table girls” of last decade’s demon time), and infidelities amount to wistful moments of vulnerability as opposed to tortured diatribes. If there’s a self-help vibe here, it’s refreshingly light and accessible — self-help for the selfie set.
On “Gasoline,” the Toronto troubadour chants, “I know you won’t let me OD,” in a tone that makes his partner sound like an enlightened seer prepared to guide him on some rustic spiritual retreat. And on “Out of Time,” there’s a touch of solace as he confesses, over shimmering, lush orchestration that recalls Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson, “Say I love you girl, but I’m out of time/Now I can’t keep you from loving him, you made up your mind.” Jackson’s spirit is all over this project. “A Tale By Quincy” finds Quincy Jones himself, in a spoken-word interlude, waxing introspective (”Looking back is a bitch, isn’t it”?), playing right into the themes of success and self-exposure.
Narrated by Jim Carrey, who serves as a benign, between-worlds radio announcer, Dawn FM is about boundless freedoms. Like some Casanova Kevin Finnerty, the Weeknd drifts through a surreal plane of existence on the Lil Wayne-assisted “I Heard You’re Married,” ending up with someone else’s wife. But unlike that in-limbo Sopranos alter-ego, the man born Abel Tesfaye is upbeat about impermanence: “Said you wanted your boyfriend jealous with a couple pics/And you didn’t expect to fall for me once you get the dick,” he boasts on this electro-boogie two-step staple.
“Every Angel Is Terrifying” is a Vanilla Sky-like monologue about the afterlife, whose utopian jargon (”You will enter a world beyond your imagination/A future out of control”) matches the album’s motifs, even if it ultimately slows down the momentum. But the punchy “Less Than Zero” is a sure-fire hit. Soon to be a mainstay at proms, weddings, and sweet sixteens, the soaring hook gives the co-sign to throwing caution to the wind: “‘Cause I can’t shake this feeling that’s crawling in my bed/I try to hide it but I know you know me/I try to fight it but I’d rather be free.” The Weeknd has quit his old haunts and is all the more lucid. That sense of clarity is deeply rewarding.