Did anyone really think The Weeknd was about to enter his sunshine-and-rainbows era? Despite the title, the Canadian’s fifth album Dawn FM is not some dramatic new shift in sound. He’s still very much in the shadows. But there are also signs that the artist born Abel Tesfaye has undergone change. He’s reassessing his habits, lifestyle, success, and the concept of celebrity. He sounds lonely, like Nosferatu blinking at a thin stream of light through the curtains.
Dawn FM comes in the wake of 2020’s After Hours, The Weeknd’s moody, superbly conceived work that melded his love of cinema with ominous, Giorgio Moroder-style electronic beats. Now he’s delving into the darkly shimmering, Eighties synthpop world of Depeche Mode and Duran Duran, helped by Scandipop production gods Max Martin, Oscar Holter and Swedish House Mafia. Jim Carrey serves as our creepy host: “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.”
“How Do I Make You Love Me” deals with the artist’s own conflicted feelings about fame. “It’s quite unusual, seeking approval / Begging for it desperately,” this former underground artist observes, wondering: “How do I make you want me? / And make it last eternally.” It’s a self-knowing contradiction to The Weeknd’s past celebrations of impermanence via one-night stands and sleazy affairs. Now he understands, even regrets, his flighty behaviour: “I remember when I held you / You begged me with your drowning eyes to stay,” he sings on the divine ballad “Out of Time”. On “Best Friends” he balks at the prospect of ruining a friendship by crossing a line. The woozy glimmer of “I Heard You’re Married” soundtracks him walking away from a messy situation: “Your number in my phone, I'm gon’ delete it / Girl, I’m way too grown for that deceivin’.”
The Weeknd has always laced his records with cultural references, but here they’re more specific. He seems particularly drawn to 1987, nodding to that year’s Less Than Zero (tagline “It only looks like the good life”) and concocting an eerily apocalyptic image of himself “dozing off to REM” on “Gasoline”. With the exception of single “Take My Breath”, which topples into Moroder pastiche mode, Dawn FM has enough twists and turns to keep the listener on their toes. And the devil’s in the detail, as The Weeknd knows all too well, explaining that wicked little riff on “Sacrifice”, and its sample of Michael Jackson’s falsetto yelp from “Thriller”. Dawn FM came about after he abandoned a project he deemed too “emotionally detrimental” (read, depressing) to finish. Maybe he’ll return to it, but for now this is a sophisticated exercise in facing down old demons.
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