20 March 2020 17:24
Intentionally or not, many recording artists' careers can be divided into chapters, usually defined by albums with a distinctive sound and, often, look: the Beatles' psychedelic era, Prince's early '80s new wave phase, David Bowie's "Berlin trilogy," Kanye West's "808s and Heartbreak," and so on. The three pioneering 2011 mixtapes that launched not only his career but a whole new strain of R&B bled into his more-elaborate but just as dark major-label debut, "Kiss Land." During that time he was reclusive, declining interviews, rarely being photographed and putting forth a profile as murky as the production on those albums. That album spawned several massive singles (including "I Can't Feel My Face" and "In the Night"), featured collaborations with Ed Sheeran and Lana Del Rey, and turned The Weeknd — aka Abel Tesfaye — into a superstar. A month after he turned 30, The Weeknd is launching the next era with his most fully realized album yet, "After Hours." Sonically, the hallmarks are ultra-cinematic keyboards, pulsating sub-bass, hard beats (which are seldom danceable), '80s synthesizer flourishes and caverns of echo, all of which contrast with his high, angelic voice. The sound is distinctively Weeknd, but an unusual progression — it's somehow sharp and blurry at the same time.
Longtime collaborators like Martin, Metro Boomin, DaHeala and Illangelo are present on most of the songs, but as usual he's brought in an exotic array of fresh blood: electronic musician Oneohtrix Point Never (whose avant textures brings the aforementioned blurry sharpness to several songs), Oscar Holter (DNCE, Tove Lo, Taylor Swift) and one-song drive-bys from Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker, Camila Cabello producer Frank Dukes and Lizzo's wizard Ricky Reed. It's a real album too, with a smoothly flowing arc and a loose storyline that presumably follows a still-unfolding storyline around the red-jacketed, debauched, busted-nosed character Weeknd portrays in recent videos, who is having such a bad night in Las Vegas. The mood is set with the haunting "Alone Again" and "Too Late" — loaded with ominous keyboards and sinister sub-bass — before shifting into the aching "Hardest to Love," a Martin collaboration with a spiraling chorus that could have been plucked from a late '60s pop single; the fact that it's combined with ricocheting, drum n' bass percussion that somehow sounds perfectly natural only emphasizes the song's sophistication. In an eerie footnote, the term "Alone together" appears in two songs early in the album — a term that, considering the world in which "After Hours" is landing, is sadly fitting for so many self-isolators trying to stay connected. It's followed by another killer, "Scared to Live," a slow-burning ballad (performed on "Saturday Night Live" earlier this month) with an interpolation of Elton John's "Your Song," and then the clearly autobiographical "Snowchild." The song's lyrics are a remarkably specific series of anecdotes from the singer's life: memories of his Toronto childhood and rough-and-tumble teen years, contemporary references to paparazzi and a "$20 mil mansion [he] never lived in," and a rapid-fire rapper-level verse ("Now I'm in Tribeca like I'm Jay-Z/ Rockin' Sorayama like he pay me/ I just signed a new deal with Mercedes/ Got me movin' dirty like [Patrick] Swayze/ All my diamonds hittin' like they Swae Lee").
Nearly 25 minutes into the album, here come the bangers: The hedonistic advance singles, "Blinding Lights" and "Heartless," which are already among the biggest hits of his career, and then two more probable hits: "In Your Eyes" and "Save Your Tears," both of which could have been MTV staples in the early '80s and are begging for period-appropriate videos. But the fun ends as the ominous atmosphere returns and the album strikes its defining note with the pulsating title track and then, judging by the title and abrupt end of "Until I Bleed Out," a presumably unhappy ending. When Abel Tesfaye first emerged nine years ago as the Weeknd he arrived with such an immaculately constructed sound and aesthetic that it swiftly became a creative prison. While his early blend of doleful R&B and emotionally despondent lyrics seemed fresh on 2011's trio of influential, Drake-approved mixtapes – House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence – by his disappointing major label debut, Kiss Land, in 2013 the conceit had worn thin. As with his 2015 commercial breakthrough, Beauty Behind the Madness – home to the lithe disco funk of Can't Feel My Face, which offered a PG edit of the Weeknd's lyrical tropes of unfulfilling sex and drug use – and its bloated follow-up Starboy, the new album After Hours attempts to blend the drip-fed, drug-addled mopes of yore with luminescent, Max Martin-assisted bangers your mum can sing along to. Just as those early mixtapes were buffeted by blog-friendly samples from the likes of Beach House and Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Phil Collins-esque ballad Scared to Live soars over a hilarious sample from Elton John's Your Song, while new single In Your Eyes struts around a refreshingly uncool sax solo. "Where are you now when I need you most?" he mopes on the title track, while on slow-burn opener Alone Again you can imagine him padding mournfully around his apartment as he sighs: "I don't know if I can be alone again." Unfortunately, this being a Weeknd album, there are still moments of misogyny, specifically on the bloated Heartless, which seems like self-parody, and the risible, nearly six-minute epic Escape from LA, in which he details having very boring-sounding sex in a studio with women who have all had the "same work done on their face". What connects After Hours so successfully to his early mixtapes is a sense of narrative cohesion, something the Weeknd seemed to value above all else when he started out. By balancing the two sides of his musical personality – not to mention add some levity to that boring, bad-taste id – After Hours feels like the first Weeknd album in a while to offer up a clear, singular vision rather than something frustratingly abstract.