Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is The Weeknd’s Dawn FM.
The idea of a “pop era” is usually ascribed to female pop stars and the worlds they build around their promotional album cycles. Take, for example, Katy Perry’s candy-coated Teenage Dream era, the tabloid frenzy of Taylor Swift’s reputation era or the pink and green apocalypse of Lady Gaga’s most recent solo album Chromatica. Though a very involved marketing ploy, these eras help to establish characters and landscapes that immerse listeners into the album’s story much deeper than a concept album, which lacks a life outside of the music itself.
We’ve gotten small glimpses of The Weeknd as a fully realized pop persona over Abel Tesfaye’s 10-plus year career. Beginning with the chilly R&B of his debut Trilogy mixtapes, the music of The Weeknd followed a character posed as this anti-hero who overindulges in drugs, lust and all other vices. That character came to life in beaten and bloody glory for the After Hours promotional cycle, when Tesfaye would appear at events in a pristine red suit, his face raw and bandaged, but with swagger like he just won a bar fight.
All this cockiness and decadent debauchery has finally caught up with him on Dawn FM. The Weeknd’s fifth studio album plays out like an ego death of his character but completes a storyline that listeners have been unknowingly following since his debut.
Tesfaye began letting people into the world of the album in a November interview with Billboard: “Picture the album being like the listener is dead,” he said, “And they’re stuck in this purgatory state, which I always imagined would be like being stuck in traffic waiting to reach the light at the end of the tunnel. And while you’re stuck in traffic, they got a radio station playing in the car, with a radio host guiding you to the light and helping you transition to the other side. So it could feel celebratory, could feel bleak, however you want to make it feel, but that’s what the Dawn is for me.”
Taken from the book of Janelle Monáe on her progressive soul classic The Electric Lady, the world of Dawn FM takes place over the radio waves. This time as narrated by the legendary actor Jim Carrey, playing at once both a radio DJ and a spiritual guide. The character of The Weeknd is born again over the album’s 16 tracks in a redemption arc that brings listeners into his core of vulnerability and humanity and still sounds like his most upbeat and accessible work yet.
After giving in to his vices for so long, The Weeknd finally sounds ready to face them head-on. No longer so focused on his own character, Dawn FM is grounded by his relationships. “How Do I Make You Love Me” deepens his connection with an unknown lover over a psychedelic trip instead of using drinking and smoking to suppress the pain. This longing for vulnerability is a pointed change from his character’s icy demeanor, and he is well aware of it; “It’s quite unusual, seekin’ approval, beggin’ for it desperately” he repeats in falsetto over the propulsive post-disco beat, with flickers of modern psychedelia as if M83 or MGMT achieved true pop stardom.
There is a thread of self-improvement throughout the album, as if The Weekend is righting all of his past wrongs. “The last few months, I’ve been workin’ on me, baby. There’s so much trauma in my life,” he sings on “Out of Time.” Despite the emotions and the redemption story, this album hits harder than After Hours and never relents. The sounds of ’80s nostalgia have been back in vogue on the pop charts — admittedly with the help of After Hours two years ago, but I can’t name another ’80s-indebted album that sounds so fresh today.
The chunky bassline on “Sacrifice” could sound like a Daft Punk rarity, but with a groovy snap that recalls Sylvester. Later in the album, the synths become so chilling on tracks like “Every Angel is Terrifying” and the standout track “Less Than Zero” that they recall post-punk acts like The Cure, New Order and Kraftwerk. Hip to online trends, “Out of Time” samples from city pop legend Tomoko Aran’s “Midnight Pretenders.” Writing the album during the pandemic, Tesfaye told Billboard he set out to record music that “sounded like going outside,” and produced a full collection of hits anyone can imagine filling a sweaty, booze- and coke-fueled dance floor.
Even on his fifth album, there was still a threat of a sophomore slump when following up on the unprecedented cultural and commercial smash that was After Hours. I mean, “Blinding Lights” was just awarded the title of the most successful song in the over 60-year history of the Billboard charts. What is an artist supposed to aspire toward after such a feat?
As an artist, Tesfaye made a wise decision on Dawn FM to not just look above his past success but to look inward, find what was missing and chase it, instead of numbing the loss. This makes Dark FM sound like he is trying to repent for his sins before it is too late, but it does sound like he is doing the hard work on the path toward his own enlightenment.
The final track, “Phantom Regret by Jim,” is just a plunking synth line as Jim Carrey as the DJ poses a question central to The Weeknd’s journey to inner peace: “Now that all future plans have been postponed and it’s time to look back on the things you thought you owned. Do you remember them well? Were you high or just stoned?”
Kurt Suchman is a freelance food, music, and culture writer based in Seattle. They have contributed stories to Consequence, Shondaland, Paste and Food52, and will always self-identify as a punk rock Jersey grrrl.