Album Review: DAWN FM.
Abel blends 80s inspiration with signature themes for his most coherent outing yet.
Written by: Shenjit Basu
My 10 AM alarm promptly wakes me up half an hour before what is going to be probably the first big album of 2022. Till then, all I and others had as a material was the lead single (Take My Breath) which was released last year, a montage of “The Dawn is coming” clips from different interviews, some very riveting visual snippets, and an accurate representation of what the Weeknd would look like on a working weekday, which turned out to be the album cover.
The stream starts on time, as promised (being a 2021 Kanye fan has led to some severe trust issues) and off we go on a journey, helmed by the dulcet tones of our favorite 90s comedian, Jim Carrey. We were finally here, listening to 103.5 Dawn FM.
Abel Tesfaye’s gargantuan musical personality The Weeknd has been one of the biggest mainstays of the past decade. His self-destructive lyrics combined with beautiful hooks and haunting production first brought him under the spotlight, but what critics thought was an avant-garde niche without any hope of expansion turned out to be an inspirational adventure through experimental soundscapes, fully-formed sonic environments, and some really, really great tracks that have now taken the radio by storm.
It is therefore poetic that his 4th album constructs a radio station, a ‘pit stop’ you make before the final journey into the afterlife. It just so happens that The Weeknd’s vision of looking back at one’s life includes a jog through the world of vintage synths, hypnotic beats and a Synthwave Renaissance brought upon by the Prince of Dark Pop himself. This is why the title track feels like a personification of the crossing of worlds; “ ‘Cause after the light, is it dark?” questions Abel, while we hear Jim Carrey quickly answer his doubts in his best Quiet Storm RJ imitation: ‘You’ve been in the dark for way too long, it’s time to walk into the light.”
The Canadian duo along with an Avengers-like lineup of producers which include Max Martin, Swedish House Mafia, Calvin Harris, and up-and-coming talent OPN (‘Uncut Gems’) bring this vision to life (pun intended) with the right balance of inspiration and clever production. The radio station metaphor never feels corny or cheesy, with the measured use more of a wake-up call to make the dawn of this new era palatable and consistent. While complaints of the opening tracks sounding too alike may be debated for years to come, it is undeniable that the dancefloor is ready for these bangers, when (or if) the world walks back towards normalcy. The new tracks ‘Gasoline’ and ‘How Do I Make You Love Me’ double down on the synthpop influences first heard in development during ‘After Hours’ with absolute aplomb. While the themes of longing and self-destruction in these songs may get long in the tooth for someone who has followed Abel’s discography for a while, the glistening synthpop packaging goes a long way into making this a refreshing experience.
The transitions end up playing a huge role in making this album feel more of an experience than any of The Weeknd’s previous outings. The thumping change into ‘Take My Breath’ from ‘How Do I Make You Love Me’ gives the former renewed energy, even though the edited version has been out for quite some time. Even narratives like Quincy Jones’ heartbreaking tale of devalued relationships because of the lack of a mother figure in ‘A Tale By Quincy’ serve as the perfect prologue to Abel’s struggles of realizing time flies when you have fun in ‘Out of Time’. You can also see the braggadocious, hard-to-get character the singer plays in ‘Best Friends’ get insecure immediately in the aptly named ‘Is There Someone Else’, a masterful example of how well The Weeknd knows the need to let emotions materialize without any compromises, all the while maintaining that sweet synth-bass groove.
The album, though, fails to hide some of its shortcomings. The awkward, borderline-creepy Lil Wayne verse in ‘I Heard You’re Married’ marks a very average start for the legendary rapper, especially on the back of a very strong 2021. The John Hughes movie-like “Less Than Zero” also feels like a clichéd formula, which will get a lot of airplay and international coverage as a prom staple, but probably fit better on the atmospheric tracklist of ‘After Hours’. It also doesn’t bode well that the song reiterates the self-deprecating Abel ranting about how he is never enough, but you’d think that being one of the biggest music artists in the world would give him some glimmer of hope. Not the case, apparently.
However, every criticism or fault pales in comparison, ironically, to the album’s quieter moments. The vocal prowess of The Weeknd with Tyler’s deep (in both meanings of the word) delivery on “Here We Go….Again” makes it a melancholic ballad talking about confusion and disillusionment with so much clarity. The lack of any prominent percussions accentuates the lovely performance and I cannot wait to listen to this life, with Abel probably playing the piano and Tyler just sitting on top of it. Furthermore, the deception and introspection provided by ‘Starry Eyes’ is just beautifully created, and if you do listen to the album chronologically, it is something truly magical. Save some applause, though, for the artistic genius of Jim Carrey on the final track, delivering couplets like a seasoned rapper and tying the entire Dawn FM experience with a huge bow on “Phantom Regret by Jim”. This also sets people up for disappointment, who would probably just be waiting for the comforting lines by the actor instead of the Grim Reaper when the time arrives.
‘Dawn FM’ is probably the most coherent album released by The Weekend when it comes to structure and thematic balance. The entire experience feels unpausable, making you anticipate what is next and conceptually builds strong parallels to the fears and consequent alleviations of the afterlife. Sure, the brooding, depressing environment may not be to everyone’s liking coupled with the heavy 80s inspiration, but most would agree that very few artists can think of competing with The Weeknd at this stage of his career. And if this is just the break of dawn, I shiver in anticipation to see what the rest of the day looks like.
103.5, DAWN FM!