Abel Tesfaye Appears To Be Reinventing Himself...
This a new version of The Weeknd. One that sees Abel embracing a bloodied, pained persona and a healthy dose of 80s synthpop amongst his signature brittle falsettos, spacey atmosphere and confessional lyrics.
After a hiatus that saw very few public appearances since the release of My Dear Melancholy in 2018, The Weeknd suddenly appeared to be everywhere. Sporting retro sunglasses and a plastered nose, playing a version of himself in Uncut Gems with Adam Sandler, becoming a ‘creative director’ for Mercedes and performing new singles on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and SNL. The glamour of this public persona provides an important backdrop for the themes of newest album After Hours and the Anton Tammi directed short film with the same title displays an underlying darkness to an artist that, underneath the glitz of a successful public figure, is struggling against the highs and lows of his life.
In the short film, Abel walks away from the crowd of the Kimmel show with a charming smile that melts into intense sadness as he enters the shadows backstage. The album portrays a similar duality, with many of the high tempo cuts portraying an artist engulfed in his own success and materialism but are spliced with spaced out contemplations on the darker sides of addiction and a glossy, superficial existence. Abel oscillates between arrogance and self-pity, and both sides of the persona seem as pathetic as the other. He is at his lowest when backed by synth and psychedelia heavy production from Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker on ‘Repeat After Me’, uttering hopeless confessions, ‘you’re just fucking / it means nothing to me’, or intimately admitting his past behaviours in a relationship on the UK liquid drum and bass influenced ‘Hardest to Love’, a song so sweet it becomes almost cloying, followed by the romantic and loving slow jam ‘Scared to Live’.
Lyrically, some of the tracks are in danger of slipping into cliché in dealing solely with themes of women, excess and loneliness, as has come to be expected for a project from The Weeknd. However, immaculate vocals and the excellent production for the most part make it all work strangely well. Much of the more tongue in cheek lyrical content (see the ‘Phillip K. Dick’ line on ‘Snowchild’, or the ‘cold hearted but throat too fire’ line on ‘Escape From LA’) does seem to be delivered intentionally to present a depraved persona, and fall in line with the delirious figure grinning through dripping blood on the album cover and stumbling through dramatic music videos. The cyclical feeling of drug-induced hedonism is a thematic quality of nearly all of Abel’s work, and the emptiness and intensely materialistic nature of the profane lyrics deliver a picture of an artist who feels lost and despairing. It’s an aesthetic that laments a kind of wretched hopelessness.
The 80s synth influence is strewn generously throughout, most explicit on the five song stretch which follows the relentlessly catchy ‘Heartless’, featuring a sticky refrain over skittering trap hi hats. The synthwave influence shines on tracks such as the cinematic and glossy ‘Blinding Lights’, a track that harks back to the 2015 Grammy winning album Beauty Behind the Madness, as well as ‘In Your Eyes’, a Daft Punk inspired tune heavily laden with synths and an emphatically brilliant sax solo. Abel’s voice sounds dreamy over the production, carving out songs that are sure to be arena fillers. This stretch is about as extravagant and magnificently 80s as it gets, and is where the album shines brightest, sounding truly hedonistic, effervescent and alive.
Abel captures the feeling of a late-night city drive, or a party in its last throws, a glittering, coruscating aftermath which is concluded by the twinkling ‘Save Your Tears’, with plucked synths and hand claps that deliver a nostalgic image of someone dancing carefree in a high school prom or a party, revelling in their own heartbreak.
The muddier and more atmospheric tracks are nowhere near as glitzy as the more explicitly 80s influenced tracks, and instead present an artist that is attempting to marry the two sides of his life, the drug addled past and the success of his present self. The production of songs such as ‘Snowchild’ and the Metro Boomin produced ‘Escape From La’ start slowly, but progress nicely with thickening production that enters a more hazed state and function as an effective thematic shift. A newfound nihilism is explored on songs such as ‘Faith’, as Abel uses drug addiction to encapsulate his darker existentialist tendencies, with wretched utterances such as ‘but if I OD, I want you to OD right beside me/ I want you to follow right behind me’. The final track ‘Until I Bleed Out’, ends a tumultuous and solipsistic journey, recognising how his actions have destroyed everything he has been reaching for, his relationships, his possessions and fame. Abel told Apple Music ‘You can find love, fear, friends, enemies, violence, dancing, angels, loneliness and togetherness all in the after hours of the night’, After Hours revels in this liminality, embracing his position as a pop culture bad boy.
With flamboyant sunglasses, a crimson suit and bloodied nose, The Weeknd’s latest project is him at his most flashy and yet his most tragic, as he is simultaneously brooding, unstable and nihilistic. The persona appears as a more complete and refined extension of the caricature Kanye West presented in the 2009 short We Were Once a Fairytale, directed by Spike Jonze to accompany West’s 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak. Both artists display caricatures of themselves that are disillusioned with the surreal quality of their lives, drowning in themes of loss and isolation. Abel takes this concept and runs with it, delivering an aesthetic of an artist battling with in his own success and addiction. He builds on his surrealist dark pop style, rather than departing from the sound that gave him notoriety.
After Hours is the most focused and cohesive project The Weeknd has produced so far, marrying arena filling hits with the downtempo tunes of his earlier work in a genre he carved out for himself. The result is a project that is perhaps his most enjoyable listen to date, an intoxicating and desperately hopeless experience, saddening and at times brilliant.
- 8.3 -
'Heartless', 'Faith', 'Blinding Lights'
Fin Cousins is an English literature student studying at Kings College London, he is an avid consumer of sports, fashion and music. He is still waiting for his rap career to take off.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based in London, England.
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