It’s been a long time since The Weeknd was any kind of mystery. When three acclaimed mixtapes came out under that name back in 2011, we knew three things about the artist behind them: he was prolific, disco-damaged (this was sweaty, sickly R&B largely preoccupied with the perils of coming down and waking up with a stranger in your bed) and apparently unconcerned with mainstream success.
Fast-forward to 2017 and everything had changed. Initially an anonymous figure, the Weeknd had long since revealed himself as Abel Tesfaye, a red carpet-bothering star with two smash-hit crossover pop albums (2015’s Michael Jackson-influenced ‘Beauty Behind the Madness’ and 2016’s fluffier and Daft Punk-featuring ‘Starboy’), a reported net worth of $92m and a couple of high-profile relationships behind him. Stylistically, superficially, this forward propulsion sees him loop back to the start with six-track EP ‘My Dear Melancholy,’, which appears to sink back into the browbeaten R&B with which he made his Google-friendly name. This works – sporadically.
Where the 18-track ‘Starboy’ often drifted into forgettable airiness, his latest offering is tighter and more focused, with greater attention to detail. There is an evident willingness to experiment – see the clattering UK garage beats of ‘Wasted Times’– and notable moments of stylistic brilliance, the album peaking on ‘I Was Never There’ and ‘Hurt You’, both of which are co-credited to French producer Gesaffelstein. The first 30 seconds of the former track are thrilling; a whirling synthesiser dances with austere, mechanical percussion, the sounds dragged down by the bassline as if plumbing the depths of some towering, dystopian cityscape. Contrarily, ‘Hurt You’ peaks during its final 30 seconds, the melody sliding into in a squealing cacophony of electronic beats, howling synths and sound effects that evoke a ray gun blasting into your heart.
Elsewhere, though, ‘My Dear Melancholy,’ suffers from the characterlessness that defined ‘Starboy’. Take first track ‘Call Our My Name’: an inauspicious opener, the song wafts by in a stream of Weeknd-by-numbers tropes (dazed beats, wailed vocals and echoing production). Final track ‘Privilege’ bows out in similarly apologetic fashion. Yes, those aforementioned highlights indicate a mysterious alchemy that remains in Tesfaye’s work – but its impact has become increasingly scattershot.