On ‘Dawn FM’, The Weeknd Finds Himself In Purgatory
The Weeknd has accepted death, and it sounds like a kitschy '80s dream.
Infinite Pop is a Music Junkee column about the past, present, and possibilities of pop music.
“Oh… there’s a new Weeknd album already?”
Has Abel Tesfaye ever really left? By now, you know who he is. His red-suited After Hours character is buried, our palates are cleansed — let’s dive into his eighth full-length, Dawn FM, with the same immediacy as he announced it on January 1.
View this post on Instagram
The Weeknd’s tones, as melodious as ever, open the title track, but the real surprise is the voice of Jim Carrey, playing the role of Dawn FM’s DJ, ushering us into this journey: “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…”
And then, with ‘Gasoline’, we’re once again speeding down that endless highway. “It’s 5 a.m., I’m high again”, “I’m staring into the abyss…”. It seems like every Weeknd narrative ever, yet the details are different. He speak-sings those verses in a weird, Brit-inflected baritone; and in the chorus, he’s more flippant than he’s ever been about the prospect of his own death: “Just wrap my body in these sheets… /It don’t mean much to me”.
Abel Tesfaye has let go.
The World’s Sleekest Pinball Machine
As Dawn FM progresses, you’ll notice that it’s oddly… straightforward? That’s never been the Weeknd’s approach to pop music — he’s always subverted his hooks with a hedonistic, wordy, sometimes cerebral approach. ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ and ‘Blinding Lights’ famously thrive off that tension: they’ve almost kid-friendly melodies that hide their darkness in plain sight.
But here, the subversion is no longer the point. Dawn FM is all surface — like the soundtrack to the world’s sleekest pinball machine. This is very deliberate, and in the Weeknd’s hands, very much a good thing.
With that freedom from pretences comes the freedom of the dancefloor. Tracks two to five crossfade into a seamless suite: ‘Gasoline’ into ‘How Do I Make You Love Me?’ and its eye-opening vocoded chorus, into ‘Take My Breath’ — whose five-and-a-half-minute extended mix brings so much more tension and release than the single version.
‘Sacrifice’, the latest single, conjures thoughts of ‘Billie Jean’, and does it so well that it renders any complaints moot. It’s a dare to every other artist who’s embraced ’80s nostalgia: who could possibly do it better than this? And it’s pure aesthetic pleasure, the most dazzling sequence of songs the Weeknd’s ever assembled.
With production credits on every song, Tesfaye’s joined by a murderer’s row of collaborators: Max Martin, Swedish House Mafia, Calvin Harris, Tommy “TBHits” Brown (of ‘thank u, next’ fame). But Dawn FM’s backbone is Daniel Lopatin, a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never: vaporwave pioneer, Uncut Gems composer, and the Weeknd’s musical director at last year’s Super Bowl show.
Lopatin’s best known for making avant-garde electronic music that’s equal parts geeky and disorienting. His Oneohtrix Point Never project has become more accessible with time, but here, his palette is almost entirely classicist. There’s no advanced sound design here, no synth patches you haven’t heard on a thousand records or video game soundtracks before. That’s pretty humbling — you can recreate these sounds with any basic free synth plugin. Originality is overrated.
Of course, it’s all arranged, mixed and mastered by some of the best in the business — drawing on lifetimes of experience to reinterpret the music of their childhood dreams.
A third of the way through the album, there’s a shift. Quincy Jones himself narrates ‘A Tale by Quincy’, a story of his mother’s institutionalisation, and how his troubled upbringing had a negative impact on his romantic relationships as an adult. It’s an unusually moral message — The Weeknd breaking character to speak through an elder.
The pace slows from a highway chase to a gentle cruise; electro-disco gives way to ’80s adult contemporary. You know the kind — it’s music for love song dedications, baby.
By this point, Dawn FM has emerged as, by far, the least lyrically-driven Weeknd album. Tesfaye used to cram his verses with details — but here, you can get the gist of an entire song from the title alone. Those choruses play like catchphrases: ‘Out of Time’, ’Don’t Break My Heart’, ’I Heard You’re Married’.
This is a very cheesy songwriting technique: it’s Hall & Oates, Bon Jovi, New Edition, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, every song ever written by Diane Warren. And you know what? When done right, it fucking rules.
On Dawn FM, Abel Tesfaye is 10 percent R&B’s prince of darkness, 90 percent classic pop craftsman. He’s stacked hooks upon hooks, with no weighty concept to hold him back. It’s an argument for the beauty within a certain kind of pop formula — one that simultaneously embraces, elevates, and doesn’t give a shit about cliche.
The Road To Nowhere
“I’ll always be less than zero,” sings Tesfaye on the penultimate track, reducing both his heart and his ego to nothingness after a breakup. The arrangement’s practically ’Save Your Tears’ Part 2 — somehow, it’s even more sentimental.
Jim Carrey sees out the album with the utterly magical ‘Phantom Regret by Jim’, a neon-lit existential monologue that asks: will you find inner peace before you pass into the next life?
The Weeknd’s music has always embodied heaven and hell, the sacred and the profane, the bliss and the brutal comedown of love, heartbreak, heroin. Mix them together, and you arrive at Dawn FM’s destination — purgatory.
Allow me to offer a theory: imagine Dawn FM as Tesfaye’s After Hours character — ’Blinding Lights’ convertible crashed, on death’s door, looking back on his life. Each song recalls a fleeting moment of beauty and/or regret. In the end, does any of it matter?
The answer is… well, you’ll have to decide for yourself. The Weeknd character will probably never learn, but Abel Tesfaye clearly has. The sun will never fully rise on his horizon, because that tension is the fuel that keeps him going.
Yes, Dawn FM is a car radio, a pinball machine, a kitschy ’80s font. It’s both the glistening surface and the memories those signifiers carry with them. And it’s one more work in the grand tradition of pop epics about death and transcendence, from ‘Stairway to Heaven’ to ‘The Edge of Glory’. It’s the album cover: The Weeknd aged up to 80, with a confused expression, as if he really shouldn’t be there. He’s fated to do this forever.
But it’s Abel Tesfaye, the real person, who’s surely smiling beneath the makeup.
Richard S. He tweets at @rsh_elle.