Abel Tesfaye's take on fame is sleazy and self-absorbed, but also powerful and sonically ambitious
Abel Tesfaye appeared to be living out his own fantasy when he popped up with three mixtapes in 2011. He was hardly earning the wage to experience the seedy, club-VIP existence described on ‘House Of Balloons’, ‘Thursday’ and ‘Echoes Of Silence’, so the dubious practices that took place within could be put down to an adopted persona. Tesfaye slotted in neatly with all the glum lads making sadface hipster R&B – Drake, Frank Ocean, How To Dress Well – but there was something murkier happening on the other side of his velvet rope. Now ‘Kiss Land’ blurs the lines between Tesfaye and The Weeknd, taking the classic post-fame theme of ‘life’s awfully hard on the road’ and turning it into a concept album about debauchery, complicit observation and bafflement that no-one at home likes you any more. This time he’s living it, and believing it.
As a first album proper, ‘Kiss Land’ is vastly accomplished, but we know its backstory. Even so, that major-label budget has wrought significant advances. It’s more ambitious sonically – Tesfaye even finds the four-to-the-floor button on the fantastic, panicky ‘Wanderlust’ – and every synth, from the Phantom Of The Opera flurries of ‘The Town’ to the quasi-rave shards of ‘Professional’, has the presence of a mountain range. Cash is also pouring into Tesfaye’s rock star lifestyle, much to his chagrin. On the sprawling slow jam ‘Love In The Sky’, he moans, “I’ve been killing these shows/But I’m always getting high/’Cos my confidence is low“. Over the glitches of the epic title track – that “kiss land” is your standard backstage sleaze area – he leers at a fan with a camera: “The only thing you’re taking is your clothes off“. The sentiments are grim, but the black-as-night electronica is powerful, and Tesfaye exudes a persuasive, sickly sweetness.
That’s just his voice, a supple instrument investing lines like “I’ll sure make you come/Do it three times in a row” with conviction. His urgent performance on the Portishead-jacking ‘Belong To The World’ – “It’s something I relate to/Your gift of nonchalance“, he sings – is pure Michael Jackson, and so is the protagonist on ‘Tears In The Rain’, crooning with a sob for the girl who’s made the error of letting Tesfaye “slip away“.
As with his illustrious forebear, whether he’s an enigma or a rotter depends almost entirely on your generosity. What shouldn’t be clouded is the fact that ‘Kiss Land’ is a fascinating record, Tesfaye defying reservations with the self-absorption of a madman. Where he goes now is anybody’s guess, but he probably won’t be welcome. That’s someone else’s problem.