It says a lot about the Weeknd that his sunniest album — the one he’s framed as a kind of light at the end (???) of our long pandemic tunnel — contains not one but two songs about erotic asphyxiation.
The first you know: “Take My Breath,” which dropped last summer as an advance single from the Canadian pop-soul auteur’s brand-new “Dawn FM” even as his previous LP’s smash “Blinding Lights” was still stubbornly installed on the Hot 100.
The second is “Gasoline,” a sleek robo-funk jam that properly opens “Dawn FM” after an introduction featuring the actor Jim Carrey as a claptrapping radio DJ telling his listeners they’ve “been in the dark for way too long.”
“I wrap my hands around your neck,” the Weeknd sings, as percussive synth riffs ricochet off his high, imploring voice, “You love it when I always squeeze.”
In the past, these references to risky sexual gratification would’ve played as part of the Weeknd’s long-running bad-boy act — the devotion to extreme behavior (and the disgust with bourgeois stability) that’s driven his music since he emerged more than a decade ago with a series of shadowy internet mixtapes.
But on “Dawn FM” — which came out Thursday night, just days after the singer revealed it was finished — the rough sex carries a softer edge; here, in exquisitely rendered tunes lush with echoes of Michael Jackson and Depeche Mode, he’s illuminating a path to fulfillment, perhaps even to happiness, and crucially without renouncing his old predilections.
He’s got much, of course, to be glad about: In a realization of the superstar potential he began exploring when he hooked up with the hit-making producer Max Martin in 2015, the Weeknd’s 2020 “After Hours” album went double-platinum and led to a performance at last year’s Super Bowl halftime show. And though the record was infamously snubbed by the Grammy Awards, the Weeknd arguably won a very public battle with the Recording Academy, which recently overhauled its controversial nomination process not because of the Weeknd, it claims, but definitely not not because of him.
He vividly recounts his latest successes in one of the highlights of “Dawn FM,” “Here We Go… Again,” in which he brags about earning “a quarter-bil’ on an off-year” and making an unnamed movie-star girlfriend “scream like Neve Campbell.”
Yet in the Weeknd’s telling, this album is as much about manifesting contentment as about reflecting it. In a Zoom session with journalists this week, the 31-year-old singer, born Abel Tesfaye, said he started writing “Dawn FM” after setting aside a gloomier project he decided was too “emotionally detrimental” to continue to work on.
“Dawn FM,” which follows through on that prologue with occasional bits of radio banter from Carrey, offers a fantasy of escape, the Weeknd said, to COVID-era listeners in an imagined purgatory he likened to gridlock traffic. (Carrey, who evidently befriended the Weeknd on the basis of their shared enthusiasm for telescopes, commits hard to the role, advising folks to “unwind your mind, train your soul to align and dance till you find that divine boogaloo.”)
The Weeknd channels that optimism into songs about relationships, and not always healthy ones; “Sacrifice” is sung by a guy who lies to a woman about how he’ll never leave, while the title of “I Heard You’re Married” speaks for itself.
But there’s a sensitivity in the music to replace the cynicism that defined the Weeknd’s earlier material — a belief in the possibility of satisfaction rather than in the certainty of abuse. After “Sacrifice” comes “A Tale by Quincy,” in which Quincy Jones — architect of Jackson’s most important work — monologues over a creamy R&B arrangement about how growing up parentless impacted his romances later in life; after that comes “Out of Time,” a gorgeous “Off the Wall”-style ballad that has the Weeknd facing the cold truth of a partner’s rejection. (“I remember when I held you / You begged me with your drowning eyes to stay,” he sings, taking no pleasure in the memory.) The situation isn’t hopeful but the ramifications are: Here’s a man beginning to understand the effects of trauma, even if only to help next time.
Other songs showcase a similar emotional intelligence: “Is There Someone Else?” draws a moral line at sneaking behind someone’s back; “Best Friends” levels with a woman regarding the precise limits of what the narrator can promise. “Here We Go… Again” might be the album’s most idealistic cut and its most pragmatic, with a chorus about willingly giving into love and an endearingly tossed-off guest verse by Tyler, the Creator about the necessity of a prenup.
Compare the cover of “Dawn FM,” in which the Weeknd is pictured in convincing old-age makeup, with the bandaged post-op plastic-surgery look he maintained throughout the “After Hours” era, and his point seems clear: Some problems can be solved through artificial intervention; some simply require the perspective afforded by maturity.
What sells this message is the Weeknd’s brilliant record-making, which he undertook here with a relatively small crew headed by Martin and Daniel Lopatin (a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never). The songs boogie and shimmer just so; the melodies ache with longing and regret.
And these vocals! Over forget-me-not grooves as finely detailed as any Mtume or Patrice Rushen fan could want, the Weeknd sings more beautifully than he ever has on “Dawn FM” — not least in the mournful-ecstatic “Less Than Zero” (dig that knowing mid-’80s title) and “Here We Go… Again,” where he lays his tender croon against a sumptuous choral backdrop provided somehow by Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys. (One more noteworthy feature: A woozy yet crisp Lil Wayne in “I Heard You’re Married,” in which he earnestly tells a lover that he can’t be her “side bitch.”)
Put it this way: By all appearances, 2022 looks to be another hellish experience. So maybe it makes sense that the year’s first great album should be a feel-good Weeknd joint.