Since the release of ‘After Hours’ in March 2020, The Weeknd has dominated radio airwaves and helped bring 1980s synth-pop back into mainstream music.
With an album like After Hours and its focus on heartbreak and self-loathing – as well as a dizzying cinematic world to accompany it – listeners were left wondering where Abel Tesfaye would go next with The Weeknd’s music and storyline.
The answer would be a concept album centred around a radio station (103.5 Dawn FM) hosted by Jim Carrey, which Abel himself described as playing when the listener is stuck in traffic whilst being in a post-death purgatory state.
Now, that could sound familiarly bleak to previous projects but there is something different about ‘Dawn FM’.
It feels like The Weeknd is moving away from his past sins, as the man behind the artist, Abel, is in a far different headspace than he was back in the days of ‘Trilogy’ – his 2012 release.
Of course, the subjects of toxicity and heartbreak are present with songs such as ‘Best Friends’, ‘How Do I Make You Love Me?’ and ‘Is There Someone Else?’.
The album opens with Carrey saying: “You’ve been in the dark for way too long, it’s time to walk into the light and accept your fate with open arms.”
Carrey’s delivery is uneasy yet strangely calming, to the point of sounding cultish, and helps bring the gritty elements of The Weeknd’s past discography in tune with a step into a brighter direction.
Tesfaye draws from a wide range of influences, from adopting something close to a British accent in ‘Gasoline’, with a nod to the group The Human League.
There is also plenty of inspiration drawn from Daft Punk, Prince and Michael Jackson.
The latter’s legacy is marked on the ballad ‘Out of Time’, while a collaboration elsewhere in the album with legendary producer Quincy Jones again highlights an appreciation for Jackson’s music.
The influences even stretch as far as alternative and indie rock with the song ‘Less Than Zero’, which wouldn’t sound out of place had it been performed by The War on Drugs or Future Islands.
There are many smooth transitions on Dawn FM, from a radio advertisement on ‘Every Angel is Terrifying’ to a spoken segment from Carrey on Out of Time, and sounds bleeding into one another on the tracks Best Friends, Is There Someone Else? and ‘Starry Eyes’.
What this project says about The Weeknd’s career at this moment is that he is completely and utterly certain about this being the music he wants to create.
‘Don’t Break My Heart’ truly embodies this mixture with dark, desperate and possessive lyrics alongside a beat that will get lodged in your head until you must listen again.
His success over the last couple of years – including taking the title of the Number 1 Billboard Hot 100 song of all time – has given him the confidence to continue with more abstract concepts and ideas in this new chapter.
The two lead singles, ‘Take My Breath’ and ‘Sacrifice’, are unlikely to hit the numbers that ‘Blinding Lights’ has, but it feels as if that was a conscious decision from The Weeknd, prioritising the fluidity of the concept over one-off radio plays and streams.
Arguably, both new singles are more impressive in terms of production and with the hype and expectation that always surrounds The Weeknd, he can experiment more with his sound and still reap many rewards.
The Weeknd is at the peak of his powers and has got fans and critics even more invested in the future of his music with the announcement that After Hours and Dawn FM are the first two steps of a new trilogy.
As albums go, Dawn FM is a culmination of work from an artist who is on a fruitful creative run.
Being a departure from After Hours, the album challenges his fanbase to keep up with him as he enters what truly feels like a new step.
He isn’t defining a new genre, but rather bringing back a former style and pushing it to the forefront of pop music.
Crucially, though, The Weeknd is also maintaining what made him so popular back in 2011 when he first appeared on the R&B scene.
Feature Image Credit: XO / Republic Records