ALBUM REVIEW: The Weeknd, Dawn FM
After directing Scarface in 1983, Brian DePalma signed a contract with Columbia Pictures to make three more films. It was clearly a success, but it didn’t start out that way. DePalma fought tooth and nail to combat the MCAA’s rating of an X rather than R, which would make the film a commercial failure by default for lack of screenings. The chainsaw scene, drug use, and sexual nature of Scarface pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in cinema at the time. The first film in this new deal was Body Double, which dropped in 1984. It was a decidedly more horny, bloody and campy film altogether, a sort of “fuck you” to anyone trying to restrict or marginalize DePalma’s art. To no surprise, the film was a complete flop and Columbia cancelled this deal thereafter. Flash forward to modern times, Scarface feels relatively tame in comparison to stuff like Midsommar and History of Violence, but Body Double still stands out as the B-movie with a real sharp edge.
Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, would likely follow along with this comparison being a cinephile himself. His After Hours was an effortless runaway hit in the first week of the pandemic lockdowns, a blockbuster just like Scarface. Not only does the album embody the same coke-fueled excess of Tony Montana’s story, it also received similar accolades and acclaim. It is now double platinum certified and the lead single “Blinding Lights” broke a record for staying in the Billboard Top Ten for the longest amount of time ever. The effortless, perfect pop of After Hours was such a palpable force in the cultural zeitgeist, so much so that he was able to perform at the Super Bowl due to its massive success. One would assume that he would be content to ride the peaks sparked by hits like “In Your Eyes” and “Heartless” until he was obligated to make something else, but that’s not how he operates at all. “He still finds himself feeling hungry as an artist. It’s a drive he never wants to lose, which is why he’s spent his months at home doing songwriting exercises while marathoning Korean horror films.” Brittany Spanos wrote for his Rolling Stone profile piece. Like DePalma, his blatant disregard of his past wins and his constant need to keep working has led us to his Body Double, Dawn FM.
I’ll come right out and say that Scarface is my pick for the greatest film of all time, and Body Double is simply a favorite of mine. While the latter showed way more creativity, personality and oddity, the former just has this effortless power that is unstoppable in my opinion. After Hours is a glorious 4K restoration of the moods and attitudes of his debut mixtape House of Balloons, and Dawn FM dives more into the cult elements and Michael Jackson worship of Echoes of Silence. Risks are taken on both projects, although Dawn FM is much more prone to experimentation. With the addition of Oneohtrix Point Never (scorer for Uncut Gems, vaporwave pioneer) on almost every track, we get a more thematic and sonically idiosyncratic experience which leads to some of his greatest material yet. The opener “Dawn FM/Gasoline” brings back the vocal manipulation from “The Initiation” to great effect when alternated with his signature falsetto. His storytelling and lyrics on this track are more improved and focused, kicking off the themes of dark to light, or traumatic life to peaceful death. The reckless abandon and excess of After Hours has burned his character out, “It’s 5AM I’m nihilist, I know there’s nothing after this” he says in a zombie-like deadpan over a futuristic pop, Kraftwerk-style beat. He overdoses on the chorus, then basically says “if I die, just throw me in the trash”. And thus, the spiritual journey through purgatory begins.
While After Hours was deeply inspired by cinema hits like Casino, Raging Bull and Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, Dawn FM draws more B-movies. I can definitely see the Holy Mountain and Beyond The Black Rainbow influence in the music videos, and Oneohtrix Point Never and his co-producers bring a sound palette to accompany that well. “Take My Breath Away”, the album’s only single, takes notes from Italo disco pioneers like Giorgio Moroder and contemporary masters like Eryk Prydz. While it doesn’t quite stack up to a smash like “Blinding Lights”, it flips the pastiche in a more interesting way. All the lyrics about dying in the arms of one’s lover continue to funnel into overall themes of Dawn FM, like the ultimate conclusion to The Weeknd’s late night debauchery. This being a fake radio station, the flow between tracks is impeccable, with the next track “Sacrifice” being my absolute favorite. This is a tour de force led by Swedish House Mafia, bringing in the nasty basslines and synth work of French house legends like Vitalic and Justice for three minutes of head knocking greatness. I think it’s so clever how he takes his lack of commitment (“I don’t want to sacrifice for your love”) and puts it on this plane where “sacrifice” is also ritualistic. Basic themes like that fell flat on Drake’s Certified Lover Boy because they were one dimensional, this is 3D pop with vocal talent to back it up. It’s at this point on the record that I start to be reminded of Michael Jackson’s fabled “Thriller”, which similarly mixes fictionalized horror with human emotion. It’s no coincidence that the mastermind of that song and the album it’s named for appears for a skit. “A Tale By Quincy” solidifies the MJ connection, giving Quincy Jones a brief space to explain his rough upbringing, including having his mom ripped away from him at a young age. “Whenever I got too close to the woman I would cut her off,” he explains before concluding “Looking back is a bitch ain’t it.” He’s almost like The Weeknd’s spiritual stand-in, explaining what makes him this way as well, with Abel having grown up without his father.
“Out Of Time” sees a beautiful switch up into ‘80s slow funk a la Hall and Oates (and obviously Thriller). It calls back to some of Abel’s older work like “I Feel It Coming” with Daft Punk. Similarly to “Sacrifice”, it pairs the imminent death he is heading toward with his past regrets. “Say I love you girl, but I’m out of time…Say that I care for you, but I’m out of time” he passionately sings, giving his best performance on the entire record. Jim Carrey as “The Radio Host”, who first appeared on the opener, reimerges to remind us all that we are headed towards the light. This section of the album is a rosey tinted look back at an incredible life lived, with hints of harsh reality sprinkled back in. “Here’s thirty minutes of easy listening to some slow tracks on 103.5 Dawn FM.” Carrey says, leading us into the yacht rock-rap fusion of “Here We Go…Again”. In my opinion, this is when the album starts to get a little rocky and lose it’s footing ever so slightly. While I love brags like “Catalog looking legendary” and the thread about him stealing someone’s girlfriend, Tyler The Creator’s inclusion is a low point for me. Rather than be the luxurious Call Me When You Lost character, he leans too heavily into the bitter angle and ends up kind of unfocusing the track thematically. While we’re talking about flaws on this record, the following “Best Friends” and “Is There Someone Else?” rehashes the generic Starboy Weeknd that I thought was long gone. The latter track gains some redemption with some interesting melodies and a glorious OPN synth freak out outro, but “Best Friends” just sucks. “Starry Eyes” brings the record back on track, and works really well strictly in the context of the album.
“Every Angel is Terrifying” calls back to the overpowering electronic sound of “Alone Again” from After Hours at the start, then flows into a powerful skit about angels and a campy, Josh Safdie featuring advertisement about The Afterlife, which is labeled as “a compelling sci-fi work of science fiction.” It’s refreshing to see a huge pop star like The Weeknd nerding out, and this is one of the moments on Dawn FM that really sets it apart from After Hours in a great way. It also happens to flow into “Don’t Break My Heart” super well, which gets a little transcendental, referencing purple lights and soul snatching. The track is a sample of early ‘00s late night radio R&B, low-key but still stitched with everything that Abel does best. The melodies are on point, the chorus is killer and verses contain some cool voice modulation and detours. Now, “I Heard You’re Married” is a toss up for me at the current moment. While it’s “Where ya moms at?!?” ironic uncle bravado coming from Abel is pretty corny, the ‘70s revivalism that Calvin Harris brings to the table is really smooth and fun. On top of that, I actually find it hilarious how self-reflective and douchey Abel is, actively fucking a married woman and then shaming her for “being too deceiving” since she has a husband that she’s cheating on. All the Michael Jackson-isms and Lil Wayne’s goofy but oddly fitting verse bring it home for me personally, it feels like the horny 88-year-old dude at the retirement home trying to smash one last time before he’s gone for good.
Dawn FM is a B+, and I’ll tell you why. While it is not quite as good as After Hours (an A+) due to a couple of rough spots, it finds Abel at a creative and songwriting peak. All of his influences are more deeply synthesized into a singular, homogenic style rather than presented as “here’s a rap song, here’s a funk song, here’s an R&B song”. The OPN through-line definitely assists in this, as does the omnipresence of Swedish geniuses Max Martin and Oscar Hotler. It takes its own path from its predecessor, but can’t help but hit many of the same notes. “Less Than Zero” definitely takes a page from the Post Malone book just like “Save Your Tears” did, but transcends its foundations. It is a pitch perfect closer in every way, a real sonic embodiment of the bright light at the end of the tunnel that is so often alluded to though the runtime of the album. For anyone that’s ever been heartbroken or has gone through traumatic experiences, Abel offers a real cathartic release with the lyrics “'Cause I can't get it out of my head / No, I can't shake this feeling that crawls in my bed / I try to hide it but I know you know me / I try to fight it but I'd rather be free”. It is blissful like “Kill For Love” by Chromatics, an immaculately produced piece of pop rock that is infinitely replayable. It feels like snoozing your alarm for 5 minutes before waking up, or staying in a hot shower for an extra minute. Abel knows it’s over for him once he hits the final note, and with nothing else to lose, he absolutely goes for it. If this was the closer, the album would be a B+, but Jim Carrey’s really threatens the integrity of everything that came before it. While he is an iconic figure in film culture, his stream-of-consciousness philosophical style on social media, interviews and now this record just comes off as very full of shit. So while his inclusion here is novel, the cringe is far too strong. Thankfully, the plethora of career defining material presented on Dawn FM gives us the comfort to give the life of Abel Tesfaye, 1990-2022, a Standout Life distinction.