As the first half of his fifth album draws to close with a track called Here We Go … Again – a beautiful, beatless ballad blessed with a chord progression that recalls the Love Unlimited Orchestra’s sublime 1973 hit Love’s Theme – Abel Tesfaye allows himself a moment of self-congratulation. He hymns his appearance on the cover of Billboard magazine at the start of last year, suited and booted, smoking a cigar, surrounded by his “kinfolk”: “Catalogue looking legendary … now we’re cruising on a yacht, we clear.”
By the end of last year, Tesfaye – or rather his alter ego, the Weeknd – was on the cover of Billboard again, accompanying a feature that offered an oral history of the making of Dawn FM’s predecessor, After Hours. Complete with quotes from friends, producers, record company bosses and the tailor who made the suits he wore in the videos, it was the kind of celebration that normally appears in heritage rock magazines and is reserved for august classic albums. But then, After Hours’ biggest hit, Blinding Lights, had just dethroned Chubby Checker’s deathless 1962 smash The Twist as the top Billboard 100 single of all time, a designation based on total weeks on the US chart and the positions held during that time.
He was already vastly successful before After Hours came out but the triumph of Blinding Lights – its combination of melancholy and dancefloor propulsion the perfect complement to the misery and yearning for escapism engendered by the pandemic – elevated Tesfaye to even more rarified heights. And Dawn FM is very much the sort of thing you might release had you recently been officially crowned an all-time great.
It’s a concept album of sorts, with some lofty ideas about the afterlife that seem to be bound up with current affairs and informed by lockdown. “You’ve been in the dark for way too long, it’s time to step into the light,” offers the opening title track, while its description of what awaits us in the hereafter (“now that all future plans have been postponed”) could just as easily be a description of the hedonistic nirvana of the dancefloor: “Soon you’ll be healed, forgiven and refreshed, free from all trauma, pain, guilt and shame – you may even forget your name.”
The album comes studded with star guests that say something about its author’s status. The inter-track narration is provided by Jim Carrey; Quincy Jones rocks up six tracks in, discussing his mother’s mental illness and the effect it had on his relationships; Here We Go… Again improbably unites Tyler, the Creator and 79-year-old Beach Boy Bruce Johnston; the production team pitches together Max Martin, Swedish House Mafia and leftfield electronic auteur Oneohtrix Point Never. And its references seem to place its author in a lineage of musical greats: aside from Here We Go… Again’s suggestion of Barry White, the concluding Phantom Regret By Jim nods to both Prince and Marc Bolan.
But the most noticeable thing about Dawn FM is how effortless and confident it feels, as if Tesfaye has been bolstered rather than cowed by its predecessor’s success. Brilliantly written, produced and sung, it offers the captivating sound of an artist who knows he’s at the top of his game, at a blissful point at which every melody sticks, and every production idea works just so. It doesn’t bother cravenly chasing the success of Blinding Lights – although Less Than Zero, which marries that track’s clipped beat and retro electronics to an acoustic guitar and perfect chorus, is a huge hit single in waiting. And it delves further into the fascination with the 80s that Tesfaye first explored on the mixtapes that kickstarted his career, with their samples of Bad-era Michael Jackson and Kaleidoscope-era Siouxsie and the Banshees.
This interest finds its expression throughout, from a second half entirely consisting of mid-tempo tracks influenced by 80s R&B – uniformly stunning songs that never slip into pastiche – to the title of Less Than Zero (presumably a reference to Brett Easton Ellis’s epochal 1985 novel of moneyed, coke-numbed indifference, rather than the Elvis Costello song about Oswald Mosley from which the book swiped its name). Indeed, Tesfaye’s interest in the era of the “second British invasion” is such that he occasionally communicates icy hauteur by slipping into an English accent, which ranges from mild intonation to what you might call the full Dick Van Dyke, on Don’t Break My Heart and Gasoline.
That is a rare jarring moment on an album so well done that it’s hard to pick out highlights, although Out of Time is a particularly gorgeous ballad, and the moment when the wracked electro of How Do I Make You Love Me? segues into Take My Breath – five and half euphoric minutes of disco-house, with a riff that recalls Daft Punk’s Da Funk – is pulse-quickening.
Students of the often vexed relationship between pop stars and the personae they inhabit may note that, after the Weeknd was depicted bloodied and bandaged on his last album cover, Dawn FM pictures him prematurely wizened and grey, as if his past excesses have caught up with him. Quite what that image is supposed to mean isn’t clear but someone minded to pick holes might suggest that the lyrics that stick to the Weeknd’s classic subjects – creepy abusive relationships, overconsumption and jaded small-hours decadence – are starting to sound as old as the character looks. The one flaw in Dawn FM is that the imagery in the album’s opening tracks feels very well-worn: “I wrap my hands around your throat you love it when I always squeeze”; “It’s 5am, I’m nihilist”; “You’re offering yourself to me like a sacrifice”, etc, etc.
Then again, maybe it’s meant to signify maturity born out of bitter experience. There’s a certain narrative arc to the songs, independent of the stuff about the afterlife, that sees the Weeknd go from erotic asphyxiation and hoofing up drugs to feeling wounded that one of his conquests is cheating on her husband with him (“I heard you’re married, girl, and I hate it,” he sings, the negative image of the cokey hedonism of I Can’t Feel My Face), then pleading for affection and panicking that he’s stuck: “I don’t want to be a prisoner to who I used to be”.
Perhaps it’s supposed to be taken in conjunction with the album’s afterlife theme, a suggestion that the character is reaching the end of the line and that Tesfaye – who has talked in interviews about wanting to “remove the Weeknd from the world” – intends to move on. If that’s true, Dawn FM is a fantastic way to bow out: 2020s pop music so brilliantly crafted that it causes you to realise how much other 2020s pop music is makeweight.