The Weeknd ‘House of Balloons’ – Review

3 Apr

When Rock critics write about genres that are alien to them, they can often be embarrassingly dismissive, sensationalist or both at the same time. When it comes to their coverage of these foreign genres, Rock critics will often find one of two acts that have indie or alternative credentials and then write exclusively about them whilst ignoring everyone else; the prominent coverage the likes of  Hot Chip, The Very Best, Yeasayer, and more recently James Blake and Odd Future have received proves this. But even more so than dub-step, electronica or hip hop, R&B is a genre that most critics seem to be hopelessly out of their depth when discussing. Therefore when I heard The Weeknd’s name being thrown around a lot, and then found out the type of group they are, I wondered if this wasn’t just another case of indie tastemakers latching onto the easiest entry point into a world they don’t understand – the r&b act with alternative appeal.

There is some truth to this. The familiarly nocturnal sound of ‘House of Balloons’ is reminiscent of The XX and Burial whilst the production recalls a more downbeat Drake or The Dream. It seems that very little is known about The Weeknd and this has also added to the hype. The mystery surrounding the band reminds me of the interest in Jai Paul and Joy Orbison and every blog and music website these days loves the unknown. You may have noticed that these are all very hip touchstones, and the combination of these varied and too cool for school influences makes The Weeknd seem like a very credible, post modern act.

I may as well lay my cards on the table; my knowledge of contemporary r&b is as non-existent as the next white English Lit student from the Midlands; I have absolutely no idea what is going on in the scene and the last r&b album I listened to was R. Kelly’s latest – hardly cutting edge. The reason I put on ‘House of Balloons’ was purely to see if it lived up to the hype, I have no idea if this is representative of the genre or not (but judging from the little I have heard on radio, I’m guessing not). Therefore I’ll conveniently ignore the question of whether The Weeknd are r&b’s future and instead concentrate on a much easier question – do I like it? Well, yes I suppose I do.

It’s best to talk about ‘House of balloons’ as an album rather than picking out individual songs (although ‘What You Need’ and ‘Wicked Games’ are the two highlights) as it works best as an extended mood piece, an album made up of vague and hyper-emotional responses to some uncomfortable issues. Subjects raised include unrequited love, drugs and strange sex – it isn’t always an easy listen despite the oh so easy vocals and laid back atmosphere. On ‘High For This’ the singer swoons ‘Trust me girl, you wanna be high for this’. Although what the lady in question needs to be high for isn’t explicitly mentioned it’s assumed that the act itself is explicit (oddly and intriguingly the scenario involves glass, no protection and a whole lot of trust!) The Weeknd’s personality definitely shines through in the lyrics which are honest and thought provoking throughout.

The music isn’t anywhere near as confrontational as the lyrics. The vocals are airy and float about in the mix, only really jarring the listener out of a lull when the lyrics are as  provocative as the ones described above. The beats have a rich tone and are fairly straightforward whilst the samples are diverse and interesting (they include Beach House and Sioxise and the Banshees). Overall the atmosphere is chilled and distinctive, occasionally the songs will drift in repetitive directions and some tracks go on too long, but often this works to the group’s advantage. It makes for an album that slots nicely into the background of whatever you’re doing and will occasionally catch your attention in an interesting way.

So yes I did like ‘House of Balloons’, although It’s fair to say I wasn’t blown away. The album is a bit short on tunes but it’s big on identity and for The Weeknd I think that might be more important at this stage. Originality? It sounds original to me but as I say I don’t know enough about the genre to make an informed comment on that. Whether it’s original, cool, post-modern, unique, mainstream, hyped to the hilt or whatever, at the end of the day it’s a good album and that’s the most important thing, whatever tag you want to give it. Ultimately ‘House of Balloons’  is free to download right now, and there really is no reason not get it.

7/10

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