Abel Tesfaye’s answer to the monstrous hit After Hours is an album full of seductive, narcotic bliss mixed in with a healthy amount of existential dread, as the enigmatic superstar begins to look inward.
There is no other way to put it, The Weeknd is a retro-funk triumph; a Starboy ascending higher and higher into the atmosphere. His 2020 single Blinding Lights surpassed Chubby Checker to become the Billboard number one single of all time, whilst his bruised and bloodied Super Bowl performance was watched by an audience of 92 million people worldwide. Tesfaye is an unstoppable force of creativity and Dawn FM acts as the spiritual and sonic successor to After Hours, with the Toronto superstar asking himself the most important question…what does it all mean?
The enormity of After Hours and its melancholic vitality propelled The Weeknd into new critical and commercial heights. With electronic frenzy pulsating through its core, After Hours flirted with disco fantasia and euphoric majesty to create a dance floor classic when all dance floors were closed (think Footloose but worse). The pop-friendly hits of Kiss Land and Beauty Behind the Madness were replaced with a creative deviltry that offered pandemic escapism through genre-hopping beats. Tesfaye has always flirted with lyrical nihilism, favouring promiscuity and chaos over acceptance and warmth. With his fifth studio album, Dawn FM, we find The Weeknd exploring nihilistic art-house pop at his most genuine.
Released with little fanfare via a Twitter announcement four days prior to its release date, Dawn FM exhibits an artist at his most contemplative. The album cover features a geriatric version of Tesfaye, complete with white hair, wrinkles, and sheer despondency in his eyes. It is hard not to speculate the Canadian singer-songwriters alter-ego coming to an end as we have witnessed The Weeknd broken in After Hours and grown in Dawn FM. Tesfaye has compared his creation to that of a monster: “The Weeknd is Hyde. Abel is Dr. Jekyll.” Dawn FM is Tesfaye reckoning with his past and maturing under his own destructive personality, all accompanied by synth euphoria and new wave tranquillity (think Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting: “It’s not your fault, The Weeknd, it’s not your fault”).
Dawn FM is a concept album set amongst a traffic jam in purgatory, with The Weeknd lethargically waiting for his turn to drive into the all-encompassing white light. The car radio station provides the musical decoration as Tesfaye’s real-life neighbour guides us through our final journey. Now, you are probably picturing your lovely, old next-door neighbour Beryl reciting sweet-nothings to you, or your neighbour Albert mowing his lawn on a Sunday, handing out Werther’s Originals like a boss as he delivers a sombre monologue. Tesfaye doesn’t have a Beryl or an Albert, and has probably never even heard of Werther’s Originals; his neighbour is Ace Ventura himself, Jim Carrey, and his sophisticated, cozy delivery fits perfectly into our pensive state of waiting.
The LP beautifully reveals the two sides of the singer-songwriter. With the Depeche Mode inspired single Gasoline; Tesfaye asks his lover to watch over his drug fuelled state: “It’s only safe for you and me / I know you won’t let me OD.” He instructs her to set his body on fire if he passes to the other side. This dependency of love does not appear as romantic but rather dispassionate, with his partner acting more as a caretaker than a lover. The incredible five-minute version of Take My Breath further cements the megastars nihilistic excesses: “Take my breath away / And make it last forever, babe.” Whoever thought that yearning for the end could sound so splendid? Take My Breath is pure, pulsating intoxication. Carrey soothingly instructs the listener in the opening track to “accept your fate with open arms,” and Tesfaye is following this mantra swimmingly.
Then it all changes… A Tale By Quincy disrupts the tone of the album completely. Quincy Jones relays a sombre account of how the upbringing of an adolescent can shape who they are as an adult; the past bleeds into the present. From this point on Dawn FM shifts into an introspective, vulnerable narrative, revealing the other side of The Weeknd. Out of Time follows Quincy’s message with Tesfaye gently singing to a former lover: “The last few months I’ve been working on me, baby / There’s so much trauma in my life.” Sampling Tomoko Aran’s Midnight Pretenders, the song is a confession of regret snugly intertwined with tender orchestration that emulates Michael Jackson’s Human Nature. Here We Go…Again features a collaboration with Tyler the Creator as Tesfaye adoringly serenades the love that he will never be able to experience, echoing Quincy’s sentiments of the past becoming the present.
The spirit of Michael Jackson’s seminal Off The Wall LP is diluted through the album, in particularly in Sacrifice where we find harmonies that feel like a new age King of Pop. Dawn FM features The Weeknd’s strongest vocal performances to date. His voice is emotionally charged and acts as lush hysteria to our ears. Is There Someone Else? perfectly showcases the control he has over his voice, matching the synth production and atmospherics, building on the sound rather than stealing from it. The influence of bands such as Eurythmics and The Human League can be found sprinkled throughout the LP; How Do I Make You Love Me? perfectly encapsulates the intricacies of a synth solo and propels the song into a new wave wonderland. The love Tesfaye has for the 80’s sound is apparent and moulded into retro-modernity with texturised digital flourishes.
Dawn FM ends with a sympathetic outro from Carrey, endearingly helping Tesfaye and the listener to move forward into the light: “Consider the flowers, they don’t try to look right / They just open their petals and turn to the light.” The whole album acts a message to abandon regret and move forward, to not let your past swallow you up, to know that you are more than what has happened to you. The Weeknd’s Dawn FM is the start of something beautiful, a new future for Tesfaye, one that isn’t filled with regret but rather acceptance. What a sublime experience to witness.