The Weeknd – ‘After Hours’ review: his most all-encompassing record to date is also an existential quandary

The Weeknd's comeback record splits the difference between his hedonistic and reflective personas

“I spend most of my days alone now,” The Weeknd said of his solitary, workaholic ways in a recent interview. “I don’t like to leave my house too much. It’s a gift and a curse but it helps me give undivided attention to my work… It distracts from the loneliness, I guess.” It’s a coincidence, certainly, but one very fitting that the first big album release of this period of global self-isolation should come from R&B’s foremost Abel Tesfaye. It’s a record free of features and full of probing self-reflection.

Tesfaye’s last release, the 2018 EP ‘My Dear Melancholy’ , signalled something of a sonic retreat, a stylistic U-turn back to the downtempo noir-pop of his early work. It followed chart-propelling dabbles with disco and funk-indebted electro, as the Canadian crooner  transcended his initial cult-like status to make a surprisingly seamless crossover to the mainstream. Collaborating with the likes of Daft Punk, Lana Del Rey and Ed Sheeran, Tesfaye maintained his brooding and sleazy subject matter while scoring hits by pairing his signature falsetto to radio-friendly pop backdrops or upbeat nu-funk grooves.

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Ahead of this new album release, The Weeknd promised “no more daytime music” and “a new brain melting psychotic chapter,” suggesting a much darker record than its immediate predecessor. But instead of opting for either arena-filling hits or the shadowy downtempo tunes of his early releases, Tesfaye instead switches between the two modes on ‘After Hours’, managing to produce his most all-encompassing record to date.

The jaunty ‘In Your Eyes’ (which comes with a euphoric, joyous and absolute killer sax solo) harks back to the sparkling bombast of 2016’s ‘Starboy’, while ‘Blinding Lights’ has the same kind of glossy, cinematic feel as the best bits of ‘Beauty Behind the Madness’.  Lead single ‘Heartless’, a track admittedly a bit Weeknd-with-writer’s-block, makes sure there’s a club banger on offer, while ‘Snowchild’ is perhaps the most intimate we’ve heard Tesfaye sounding in a while. It’s a rare glimpse at Abel, the man, rather than his Weeknd persona.

Lyrically, it’s mostly what you’ve come to expect. Tesafye’s music has long been concerned with the cyclical ups and downs of hedonism (after all, the whole concept arc of his breakthrough mixtape trilogy was pretty much the highs and lows of the party and the after-party), and the comedown feeling continues on the appropriately-named ‘After Hours’.

But, having recently turned 30, his long-running claims of wanting to abandon his old life sound a little more believable this time round, as he opens the first track ‘Alone Again’: “Take off my disguise / I’m living someone else’s life / Suppressing who I was inside.” Meanwhile, on the propulsive ‘Too Late’, Tesfaye sings: “It’s way too late to save our souls, baby / It’s way too late, we’re on our own / I made mistakes, I did you wrong, baby.”

‘After Hours’ stands as The Weeknd’s strongest record in some time, but still there’s a nagging question of what’s to come. Because once you go pop, and then back to your roots, where exactly do you go next? That’s precisely the problem The Weeknd faces with his next effort.

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Release date: March 20

Record label: Island Records

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