It would seem that in these confusing times, Abel Tesfaye has been cruelly relegated to being only the second most ubiquitous thing on planet Earth. But ubiquity he has achieved, to a frankly staggering degree for an artist whose music tends to be so, well, debauched. Since teaming up with pop King-Maker Max Martin in 2015, The Weeknd’s last two albums have been certified 3x and 2x platinum; he performed the Super Bowl half-time show; has appeared on lead singles from Kanye West, Rosália and FKA Twigs; and his 2019 single “Blinding Lights” went so viral that it started to feel like an actual infection. Such dominance can feel tiresome but, ultimately, there will always be someone in this top spot and, as Dawn FM proves, we could do far worse than Tesfaye.
Unlike many of the blockbuster releases of our time, The Weeknd’s fifth studio album is produced by a relatively small circle, mostly comprising only of Martin and Daniel Lopetin of Oneohtrix Point Never – the niche and cerebral MIDI producer who is just one example of the post-modern, counterculture musicians from the early 2010s who now shape the sound of our biggest stars. Teaming up with Lopetin is the best creative move Tesfaye ever made, giving him the courage to embrace the cheesiest whims of 1980s synth and city pop fully, without meekly trying to water them down with sub-bass or hi-hats. And by god, do these men love the ’80s. They huff the tastes of A-Ha and Duran Duran in the way those bands definitely huffed cocaine. Shooting for the sounds of English and Japanese pop groups of forty years ago is hardly an obvious move for a 21st Century pop star, and this shameless commitment lends Dawn FM cohesion and vision.
The results are pretty immaculate. “Gasoline” sees pop’s most in-demand falsetto singing in such low voice that it’s genuinely trippy, resulting in a cut which could be slipped seamlessly into a Depeche Mode record. The transition from the Swedish House Mafia-produced “How Do I Make You Love Me” into “Take My Breath” is quite a moment, and the latter single remains one of Tesfaye’s greatest ever; an ecstatic, synthetic monolith whose momentum is somehow maintained by the rubbery baseline of “Sacrifice”, another hit in waiting. “Out of Time” meanwhile sounds like a vintage Michael Jackson slow jam and indeed it follows, in a gigantic flex, an appearance from Quincey Jones, the man behind those records.
Dawn FM is also a concept album, loosely. It’s one of the first records to be explicitly for a pandemic beleaguered population, replacing a now-scrapped album of downbeat cuts Tesfaye deemed too “emotionally detrimental”. Instead we have Jim Carrey (?) hosting a faux radio show which hurtles the listener to a final, blissful end. The warm feelings are maintained by songs of growth and contentment delivered over creamy, bubbling instrumentals. The Weeknd remains The Weeknd, so the record dips in typically dark territory, with Tesfaye signing “I know you won’t let me OD / And if I finally die in peace / Just wrap my body in these sheets / And pour out the gasolinе / It don’t mean much to me” on the first of two songs about auto-erotic asphyxiation. But Tesfaye’s willingness to delve into genuine nihilism makes the sweet spots all the sweeter, and closer “Less Than Zero” feels like ascension into the heavens. What better balm for the start of another troubled year than our biggest star making music as good as this?