By: Tommy “T-Rod” Rodriguez
What if a radio station could guide you through the ups and downs of love, lust, life and death? Would the station play the hits, lavish deep cuts, soul-baring ballads, or even Jim Carrey narrations? What would the drive to the afterlife sound like?
Lofty questions indeed, but it seems like The Weeknd has a lot of answers to supply on his latest album, Dawn FM.
Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, needs no introduction: once a faceless blog-era R&B champ, Tesfaye has transitioned into one of popular music’s most iconic figures. Super Bowl performances, top-charting hits, paparazzi coverage, the man has it all…but somehow keeps finding ways to be creative with unique mixes of R&B, hip-hop and 80s pop throwbacks.
Dawn FM might just be the best example of the creative hot streak The Weeknd has been on. It’s easily one of his most conceptual and consistent-sounding albums, boasting a sweet set of songs that are not only some of his most effectively written and produced, but work even better as a singular body of work. Dawn FM is probably the most conceptual we’ve seen The Weeknd be since the Trilogy series, and it sounds great.
Off rip, one of the biggest praises I can give Dawn FM is its sequencing. The “radio show” concept may be a common one (ala Vince Staples, Tyler, the Creator) but Dawn FM nails it. It’s cohesive, playing to that quiet adult contemporary R&B vibe you would catch on a late night music block. There is an old soul to the album, sure, but it’s still brought out in a current fashion. The classy soul beat of “Out of Time” sounds like a modern Daft Punk song recorded in the 70s, “Sacrifice” sounds like a New Order song blended with a modern dance groove, exploding on the hook. What makes the aesthetic and composition of this album even better is just how well it all sounds, track to track. After experiencing an ethereal introduction to the album’s heavenly tone and Jim Carrey introduction, the beat bleeds beautifully into “Gasoline”. Tesfaye’s lower-register vocals perfectly balance with the driving drum machine and electronic tones. When his normally-pitched vocals arrive, it’s like seeing the first sign of dawn as you drive in the dark. The track is a great tone-setter for the album: it’s moody and hopeless, but lovesick and smooth all the same.
Dawn FM is typically dark for The Weeknd, but by working in themes of death and love amidst gorgeous pop production, it operates on a great contrast. After letting the drums from “Gasoline” run into the gorgeous dance grooves of “How Do I Make You Love Me?,” the narrative continues, introducing even more aspects of an unrequited, secret fling. Love has always been a go-to subject for The Weeknd, and while he doesn’t seem to address a singular person here, his songwriting and beat selection definitely paint numerous aspects of that emotion. “Take My Breath” seems to almost imply love as a gateway to death via suffocation: whether you go to heaven or hell after seems to be up to the listener. “Best Friends” sounds like a Starboy track, with lyrics as toxic as the synth punches are fat, making for a dramatic banger. The Weeknd seems to be in numerous places and times at once all over this record, leading to some interesting interpretations of the record itself. “Out of Time” seems to be a smooth love song sung far after a relationship ended, but immediately following this we get “Here We Go…Again,” a song focused almost exclusively on a flame residing in the present. It’s like the rush of memories you get before you pass onto the afterlife…even if it seems The Weeknd’s heaven seems to be a stable relationship.
And that was probably the goal. The Weeknd has said that Dawn FM is designed to work as a sort of purgatory before death, so the flashes of disjointed memories and guests fits appropriately with the common interpretation of life flashing before ones eyes. Jim Carrey carries as the angelic narrator of the record, Tyler, the Creator makes prenups sound like luxury on “Here We Go…Again,” and Lil Wayne eats up the chilly disco of “I Heard You’re Married.” The conceptuality of the album, if not detected by the consistent themes and the guests, can definitely be felt by the attention to detail in both the writing and production. While I do get the criticism of the beats sounding a bit same-y (especially on the back-half), I think it lends the album a personality that wouldn’t be achieved by having different types of sounds. The chipmunk soul chops and bass on “Is There Someone Else?” is a brilliant contrast against the paranoia of Tesfaye’s writing. Besides being an incredible track, it serves as a nice midpoint as the album gets a bit more dramatic on the minimal “Starry Eyes.” Personally, while I could have done without “Every Angel is Terrifying” as an interlude and “Don’t Break My Heart” as a sleepy attempt at a house-soul track, I appreciate the aesthetic and lyrical content they add to the album. Thankfully, the album wraps up nicely, hitting us with the apparent end of Abel’s many secret relationships on “I Heard You’re Married.” “Less Than Zero” gives the album a beautiful sendoff, with the singing and instrument meshing into an almost angelic climax…
And with that, yes, Dawn FM is very much an album that works best as a whole listen. I can get the criticisms it may receives: this is definitely a more quiet, subtle take on the bombastic sounds from After Hours, with a surprise release and less in-your-face singles…but it’s still great. It transitions incredibly well from track to track, featuring some of The Weeknd’s best songs and some of his most conceptual curation on an album ever. While there may be one or two skips on the back end, I think the hits (of which there’s a lot) deserve to be celebrated. It’s a rush of memories and nostalgic sounds that is bound to tug at your heartstrings or get you dancing at least a few times.
Tracks to Save: “Gasoline,” “How Do I Make You Love Me?,” “Take My Breath,” “Sacrifice,” “Out of Time,” “Here We Go…Again,” “Best Friends,” “Is There Someone Else?,” I Heard You’re Married,” “Less Than Zero
Tracks to Skip: “Every Angel is Terrifying,” “Don’t Break My Heart”
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