This guy again. “The last few months I’ve been workin’ on me, baby,” coos Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a. the Weeknd, a.k.a. by certain objective data the single biggest pop star of what I will glibly and cynically (but also kinda objectively) refer to as the Pandemic Era. LMAO at all of that, and the notion of the Weeknd’s self-improvement regimen especially. You’d laugh him out of the room—or out of the club, or right out of town—if he didn’t sound so sumptuous, as he always does and as he always will, even after he’s run out of anything substantive to say, which arguably he already has.
Though maybe substance is overrated, is paradoxically frivolous, is a luxury pop music can no longer afford here on the cusp of Year 3 of (I’m sorry about this, but it’s true) the Pandemic Era.
What we got here is a new Weeknd album called Dawn FM, announced Monday and released Friday. And God bless him, honestly, for not subjecting us to an arduous, monthslong prerelease promo campaign, given how elaborate and (after a few months, anyway) tiresome his album concepts have gotten.
Here, then, is the lower-stakes but possibly higher-quality successor to March 2020’s blockbuster After Hours, which informally kicked off the Pandemic Era and gave the world “Blinding Lights” (which Billboard itself now hails as as the single biggest Hot 100 song in that chart’s 63-year history). Ah, yes: After Hours featured an arduous, monthslong promo campaign that made everyone sick of seeing Tesfaye’s artfully bandaged face. Or maybe that’s just me. The fact that “Blinding Lights” is the biggest pop song in world history suggests maybe that was just me. Daniel Craig, for one, was very into all of it, as you are perhaps reminded on Twitter every Friday.
Dawn FM’s concept is somehow both more elaborate and less suffocating. This album’s title refers to the radio station (103.5 Dawn FM) that plays in the car in the tunnel in the traffic you’re stuck in after you die. Yeah. The DJ, of sorts, is played by Jim Carrey; Tesfaye himself is portrayed on the album cover as an eerily grayed and existentially dazed old man, like the ’80s-synth-pop version of Mahershala Ali in Season 3 of True Detective. The joke is that, this elaborate framing aside, Dawn FM’s songs are about the same three to five things all the Weeknd’s songs are about. As purgatorial concept albums go, it’s honestly a pretty good joke.
So yeah, start with the opulent pop-R&B slow jam called “Out of Time,” the slinky bass line snapping and the ghostly flute riff trilling just so as the Weeknd sings his (approximately) 10,000th song about how he had love but blew it with his distant and caddish and self-destructive behavior. “Say I love you girl, but I’m out of time,” goes the chorus, and the vibe (a gritty hologram re-creation of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, as usual) is immaculate, and Tesfaye’s wounded falsetto is as wounding as ever. The whole first verse:
The last few months I’ve been workin’ on me, baby
There’s so much trauma in my life
I’ve been so cold to the ones who loved me, baby
I look back now and I realize
These lines are preceded by a spoken-word interlude from none other than Thriller superproducer Quincy Jones, who recalls being 7 years old and watching as his mother was removed from his house in a straitjacket and institutionalized and soon replaced by an “evil stepmother,” awful formative experiences that would later play hell with Jones’s attempts to find love and raise his own kids. “Whenever I got too close to a woman, I would cut her off,” he laments. “Part of that was vindictive, and partially based on fear.” All of which is more specific, trauma-wise, than anything the Weeknd sings about on Dawn FM—I partied too hard and now I’m sad but let’s party some more remains Tesfaye’s dominant lyrical mode—but that’s purgatory for you.
The next track is a boorish and boastful little ’80s-throwback jam called “Here We Go … Again,” which I genuinely enjoy hating from that stupid ellipsis on down. You want specifics? You asked for ’em:
Strike a pose with my kinfolk
Front page of the billboards
Suit and tie and cigar smoke
Macallan shots ‘til it burn throats
We still celebratin’ Super Bowl
Catalog lookin’ legendary
Ring froze like it’s February
XO, that’s a mercenary
A quarter-bill on an off year
Used to sing on lofts
But now we cruisin’ on a yacht, we clear
Then he lambastes his ex-girlfriend (who “ended up with someone so basic”); then he sings “My new girl, she a movie star” a bunch of times; then he adds, “When I make her laugh, swear it cures my depressing thoughts”; then Tyler, the Creator drops for a desultory and mercifully brief verse that ends with him saying, “You gon’ sign this prenup” a bunch of times. I hate this song, but I respect it. I really dig a lot of the rest of Dawn FM for how little I have to think about it.
Was 2021 an off year for the Weeknd? As he notes, he played the Super Bowl, and seriously that Daniel Craig tweet still pops up every Friday, and After Hours proved so dominant on streaming especially that Tesfaye justifiably raised hell when the Grammys totally snubbed it. Is the catalog looking legendary? Tesfaye’s full career arc—from shadowy R&B insurgent to tentative pop star to not-at-all-tentative pop superstar—is still baffling and marvelous to behold, even if it’s maybe left him with nowhere else to go. Dawn FM further refines his cocaine-dusted vision of R&B’s luxurious idyllic past and pop music’s hopeless dystopian present, the familiar yet unsettling bleeps and bloops and lacerating hooks mostly provided by producer and cowriter Daniel Lopatin, a.k.a. experimental trickster Oneohtrix Point Never, who succeeds here in crafting future-shock pop music that sounds just 4 percent weirder and more unsettling than you expect.
I am, for example, very much into the robo-funk of “Gasoline,” which kicks off Dawn FM by pitching Tesfaye’s voice down to a tunefully off-putting monotone (“It’s 5 a.m., I’m high again, and you can see that I’m in pain”) before he croons an even more tuneful chorus about lighting his dead body on fire. I’m even more into “Less Than Zero,” which wraps up the album with an even more triumphant Reagan-era nod, right down to the forced cheer of the major-key synth arpeggios and the Bret Easton Ellis callback of the song title. It’s the closest thing this record has to a potential “Blinding Lights”–caliber smash. Once again, pop-superstar pals like Max Martin and Swedish House Mafia drop by to gift Tesfaye with monster hooks (“Take My Breath” is the catchiest) and the shiniest possible boxes for his trademark lovelorn nihilism (“I sacrificed your love for more of the night,” goes the sparkly chorus to “Sacrifice”). But this record is lighter on its feet than After Hours even when it, too, starts dragging. (The eye-rolling hook to “Best Friends”—“You don’t wanna have sex as friends no more”—is way less catchy.)
He’s got nothing else to say, but he never gets tired of saying it anyway, nor do we, apparently, get tired of hearing it. “I don’t deserve someone loyal to me,” he moans for what feels like the 500th time amid the somnolent opulence of “Is There Someone Else?”, which dozes off before it can answer its own question. “I Heard You’re Married” is a fun little reverse-”Jolene” exercise (“It hurts to think I’m sharin’ you,” Tesfaye coos) with a much sprightlier Lil Wayne verse (“Tell hubby I’ll kill him, no hub cap,” Weezy concludes). “How Do I Make You Love Me” works itself into an aerobic Rocky Training Montage frenzy even if Abe’s got no real concrete ideas for how to make you love him beyond, “I’ll fix you mushroom tea / And cross the restless sea.” That might work, come to think of it.
I do sincerely think that the Weekend + Oneohtrix Point Never is one of the most unlikely and thus most exciting unions in modern pop, glitzy enough for the Super Bowl yet dank and grimy enough for whatever subterranean cavern Tesfaye wants to convince you he’s still wallowing in. Dawn FM ultimately feels slight and transitional, despite all the pomposity of our lord and savior Jim Carrey waxing like a self-help Dr. Seuss as the record ends with a track literally titled “Phantom Regret by Jim”:
And how many grudges did you take to your grave?
When you weren’t liked or followed, how did you behave?
Was it often a dissonant chord you were strumming?
Were you ever in tune with the song life was humming?
A disconcerting percentage of the world is still in tune with the song the Weeknd is humming. The signs are everywhere. Did you hear that Kanye West and Julia Fox are dating? Julia Fox, the Weeknd’s costar in Uncut Gems? Yeah, for their second date she and Ye met in NYC and saw Slave Play and marveled at the hotel suite’s worth of clothes he bought her. Lotsa photographs. I suspect I will always remember Dawn FM as the album that came out the same night most of the world found out about this—it’s the most New Weeknd Album bit of gossip imaginable. Take that however you like. The vibes are kinda gross, but I wish them well. Whatever gets you through Year 3.