The Weeknd’s music has always been based around a combination of light and darkness, as the truth-in-advertising title of his 2015 sophomore full-length album, “The Beauty Behind the Madness,” stated — love and hate, happiness and anger, hope and despair, and any number of other complimentary/ contradictory, yin-and-yang elements. That combination reached a new and unintended level when his last album, the blockbuster “After Hours,” was released on March 20, 2020 — just as the horrors of the pandemic became inescapable — and for many people it’s difficult to hear even that album’s most beautiful songs without feeling the chill of those terrifying days.
One way or another, the pandemic has affected every piece of art created since it began, and the Weeknd told journalists earlier this week that he’d begun writing an album earlier in lockdown, but it was “too dark and way too sad,” so he created one that is “more fantasy and more of an escape.” The result is “Dawn FM,” as upbeat an album as he’s ever made, which finds the light/dark concept reaching its most literal iteration yet: The third verse on the album’s opening title track is “After the light is it dark?,” and the first thing he said publicly about the album (to Variety, incidentally) was “If the last record is the after hours of the night, then the dawn is coming.”
Like the Weeknd’s other albums, “Dawn FM” has a loose concept — “purgatory,” he said. “I imagined being stuck in gridlock traffic in a tunnel, and there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and we’re all just waiting for our turn, and while we’re waiting there’s a radio station playing: 103.5 Dawn-FM, and the radio DJ is guiding you through the painless transition into the light.”
While weighty in concept, that theme is much less cumbersome than it sounds: It plays out primarily in a series of fake radio-station IDs sprinkled throughout the album (with voiceovers by actor Jim Carrey and hilarious jingles crafted by the Weeknd), and the songs are a combination of bangers and ballads that are a continuation of and progression from his previous work, although much less haunted and harrowing than “After Hours” and less self-loathing than some of his earlier, darker songs. Likewise, the lyrics are usually about love, pleasures of one flesh or another, heavy emotions and the like.
Along with the loose theme, the album follows another long-running Weeknd formula of working with both longtime collaborators (Max Martin, Oscar Holter, DaHeala) and bringing in new blood, in this case Tyler, the Creator, Swedish House Mafia, Ariana Grande producer Tommy Brown, and most notably veteran electronic musician Oneohtrix Point Never (a.k.a. OPN, a.k.a. Daniel Lopatin), who serves as an executive producer here along with the Weeknd and Martin.
So what does all of that sound like? Surprisingly, it finds the Weeknd doubling down not only on the new-wave synth splashes of “After Hours,” but also on his Michael Jackson moments. Mid-period MJ is deep in the DNA of the Weeknd’s sound, but at a couple of moments here, he turns up the references to almost wink-and-nod levels. The middle section of “Sacrifice” has a passage that sounds so much like Jackson it could stop conversations, and an elaborate and beautifully executed mini-tribute takes place smack in the middle of the album: In a way very similar to Daft Punk bringing in one of their biggest heroes, disco pioneer Giorgio Moroder, for a spoken-word segment on “Random Access Memories,” here the Weeknd brings in longtime MJ producer Quincy Jones, not to produce but to talk — in harrowing and deeply personal terms — about growing up without a mother from age 7 and its effect on him. It’s an unusual but inspired way of highlighting an influence without the pressure of a musical collaboration.
That segment is immediately followed by one of the most Jackson-evoking songs to date, “Out of Time,” a retro masterpiece, complete with “Off the Wall” scratch-funk guitar and “Human Nature”-esque keyboards that will be the favorite song of 2022 for nearly everyone whose favorite song of 2021 was Silk Sonic’s “Leave the Door Open.”
Yet the two other most likely blockbusters here are both collaborations with Martin and Holter: the banging first single, “Take My Breath,” released last fall, and the closing track, “Less Than Zero,” which reflects a different kind of new wave than he usually does: the kind with a video of a group playing the song on a windblown cliff, like the Cure’s breezy “Just Like Heaven” or even (don’t laugh) A Flock of Seagulls’ “Space Age Love Song,” with a sweet, lilting melody, gently pulsating beat and chilling symmetrical synth embellishments. It’s one of the most indelible songs he’s ever released.
There are plenty of other sonic plot twists along the way: In three places he sings in an almost comically mannered British accent (possibly the influence of the acting training he’s presumably working for his forthcoming HBO series, “The Idol”); there are two “Purple Rain” references in the lyrics, although one comes from Carrey and the other in Lil Wayne’s guest verse; and in a bizarre combination, longtime Beach Boys member Bruce Johnston sings and Tyler, the Creator raps on “Here We Go… Again.” But those flourishes are never overplayed and make their points without overstating them.
Of course, none of the above explains why the hell the album cover is a photoshopped image of the Weeknd aged approximately 50 years, but his album’s themes usually function as moods that presumably aren’t intended to hold up to heavy, direct analysis. What really matters is in the grooves — although, speaking of which, this album’s abrupt release (it’s been done for months but was just announced Monday) means that vinyl and CDs won’t be available for several weeks.
No matter. “After Hours” has resonated for nearly two years after its release, and in the face of another phase of a daunting pandemic, it seems that “Dawn FM” — possibly the Weeknd’s best and most fully realized album to date — will help carry fans through this one as well.