“It’s always darkest before the dawn,” goes the old cliché and, in The Weeknd’s case, that appears to be true. After releasing his much-lauded 2020 album ‘After Hours’, Abel Tesfaye began work on its follow-up, a gloomy collection he considered too “emotionally detrimental” for a world still under the shadow of the pandemic. With that project scrapped, he moved on to something new, stepping into the first hints of sunrise with ‘Dawn FM’.
Darkness still abounds on his brilliant fifth album, which is conceptually anchored around a fictional radio station (103.5 Dawn FM) hosted by comedian Jim Carrey, Tesfaye’s neighbour and apparent fellow telescope enthusiast. But there’s a sense that the shadows are receding as the Canadian megastar takes a refreshing new look at his life, reckons with his past mistakes and attempts to become a better person.
“This part I do alone… I’ll take my lead on this road,” he sings in the album’s opening lines, before Carrey offers us encouragement to “walk into the light and accept your fate with open arms”. It’s an immediate show of taking responsibility and a mature new approach that sets up a thrilling 52 minutes that tussle with reflection, growth and the power of hindsight.
For many of us, the last couple of years have been a time of self-improvement and Tesfaye confirms he’s in that club, too, with the twinkling, dreamy ‘80s R&B swing of ‘Out Of Time’: “I’ve been so cold to the ones who loved me, baby / I look back now and I realise.” The track shows how much headway he’s made in grappling with his old ways, as he accepts that there might be someone better for his partner than him. Instead of putting up a front, he’s reconciled with the fact that he can’t force her to stay.
Working on yourself isn’t a linear process, though, and old habits die hard. On ‘Best Friends’, driven by big, dark, staccato bass stabs, he laments a pal wanting to exit their friends-with-benefits arrangement, acknowledging their feelings while being honest about his own. “I don’t want to be responsible for your heart if we fall / ‘Cause I’ll get clumsy and tear it apart,” he admits. “I love you so but we can’t get close.”
On the smooth ‘Here We Go… Again’, Tesfaye reflects on his trajectory from enigmatic Toronto newcomer to Super Bowl half-time show conqueror. “A quarter bil’ on an off-year,” he sings. “Used to sing on lofts but now we cruising on a yacht – we clear.” He’s settled in the rarefied circles he moves in, but he brings a new perspective to the worn trumpets about satisfying A-list women.
“My new girl, she a movie star / I loved her right, make her scream like Neve Campbell,” he begins (recently he has been rumoured to be dating Angelina Jolie). “But when I make her laugh, swear it cures my depressing thoughts.” Yet he moves into more cloying territory with the next line: “Life’s a dream ’cause it’s never what it seems / But you’d rather love and lost with tears than never love at all.”
If ‘Dawn FM’ hints at great personal change, musically it doesn’t shake things up quite as much. This isn’t a bad thing – the album is a coherent, cool cruise through dark synth-pop, pulling its references from the ‘80s (Giorgio Moroder, Michael Jackson, Depeche Mode, R.E.M., Talking Heads). Tesfaye has said he wants the album to provide a fantasy of escape and its sonics help bolster that feeling that you’ve been whisked off into a different world.
The star gets some help along the way to bring that vision to life, notably with co-executive producers Max Martin and Oneohtrix Point Never’s Daniel Lopatin credited on nearly every track. You’ll hear some familiar voices chipping into Tesfaye’s narratives, too. Lil Wayne memorably contributes to the metallic ‘I Heard You’re Married’, on which The Weeknd removes himself from an adulterous fling: “Can’t be your side bitch / That shit ain’t fly, bitch.”
Musical icon Quincy Jones reflects on his life on the spoken word interlude ‘A Tale By Quincy’, Swedish House Mafia add punch to ‘How Do I Make You Love Me?’ and Tyler, The Creator reflects on the impermanence of love on ‘Here We Go… Again’. Josh Safdie – one half of the Safdie Brothers, who directed Uncut Gems, in which Tesfaye made a cameo – brings spoken-word to the sci-fi synths of ‘Every Angel Is Terrifying’, a track that marks ‘Dawn FM’’s weakest moment.
And then, of course, there’s Carrey, whose frequent appearances throughout tie the record together. His is the last voice we hear, as he shares a message that feels relevant to our current pandemic rut and the reflections we’ve been making on our own lives.
He closes out with positive – if cryptic – advice: “God knows life is chaos but he made one thing true: you gotta unwind your mind, train your soul to align and dance til you find that divine boogaloo. In other words: you gotta be heaven to see heaven. May peace be with you.” ‘Dawn FM’ feels like the first steps on a journey for The Weeknd to find peace with himself; perhaps next time we hear from him, he’ll be fully embracing the light of day.
Release date: January 7
Record label: Island Records