The Weeknd ‘Beauty Behind the Madness’ – Review

13 Sep

The first time I heard The Weeknd, I remember thinking ‘he should be massive. Why isn’t he massive?’ This was around the time ‘House of Balloons’ came out as a mixtape and he was starting to build buzz online. But he so clearly deserved more than hype. That silky smooth voice, so indebted to Michael Jackson, that indulgent, hazy production and those catchy but unusual melodies that lingered for months. The Weeknd so clearly deserved stardom. But then so did The Ramones and that never happened. So did Rodriguez. And The Zombies. But those bands courted popularity and The Weeknd just never seemed interested in it. There was no sign this reclusive songwriter, who declined interviews and didn’t perform live, who gave away three albums for free in the space of a year, had any desire to be anything more than an underground artist.

It’s hard to believe but it’s been six years since ‘House of Balloons.’ Currently The Weeknd sits atop the billboard chart with his first number one single, and his album has just hit the top spot in the UK. This sounds and feels like justice. It’s also logical that it should be number one. ‘Can’t feel my Face’ explodes the idea of what a Weeknd song can be, by bringing out the already inherent ‘popiness’ in his music but retaining the sense of mystery and individuality. The baseline is brought to the forefront, the vocals are clearer and more dynamic and the drug allusions are vague enough for a PG audience. This is The Weeknd but not quite as we remember him.

The album’s success is all the more deserved because it’s the first album since the debut that doesn’t feel disappointing. The Weeknd followed up ‘House of Balloons’ with ‘Thursday’ and ‘Echoes of Silence’ in 2010, both of which had their moments but felt like lesser retreads of the debut. His 2013 major label breakthrough ‘Kissland’ on the other hand was a complete letdown; tasteless, overlong and with no hits despite a lot of major label money being spent on finding one. The Weeknd seems to have recognised this as ‘Beauty Behind the Madness’ is everything ‘Kissland’ was not.

‘Real Life’ opens with crunching guitars and beats that sound like they’re being swallowed and digested. It’s a strange start to a major album but that strangeness is fleeting. The simple, somewhat elegant piano chords that punctuate the chorus, along with the violins in the middle eight and the hook’s universal sentiment all announce that ‘Beauty Behind the Madness’ is a pop album. Not only is it a pop album, but it’s the kind of pop album that features guest slots by mammoth stars like Ed Sheeran, Labrynth and Lana Del Ray. But it’s Pop in the way Kanye West or Vampire Weekend or Jessie Ware are pop – it’s pop on his terms. As such, ‘Beauty Behind the Madness’ is one of those rare albums that has a clear, unique and identifiable artistic personality that will also translate for a mainstream audience without sacrificing much of its originality. It leans towards the mainstream as well as the underground.

But maybe it doesn’t go quite far enough in either direction. ‘Beauty Behind the Madness’ is half way to the album fans like me have been wanting since we first heard that excellent debut. It’s a disciplined, ambitious and exciting take on The Weeknd’s signature sound, put through a Pop filter. But it isn’t as distinctive or dark or irresistible as ‘House of Balloons.’ And there is also the nagging sense that he just doesn’t quite go far enough towards creating that all killer/no filler pop album either. Besides ‘Can’t Feel My Face’, there is a lack of classic songs. ‘Earned It’ and ‘The Hills’ may have already been moderate hits but neither particularly charms me. ‘Earned It’ in particular feels sloppy, bland and unusually tame. There is a wealth of quality on the album but little you would define as ‘outstanding.’

There is also the sense that Tesfaye is still too guarded and mocking to invite serious affection; that he’s still holding his audience at arms length. Like Kanye before him, Tesfaye Is a flawed human being making music that seeks to examine those flaws whilst revelling in them. Unlike Kanye, he doesn’t go far enough to wrestle with those daemons. He remains an unlikeable and mean spirited character. His language is frequently misogynistic and nasty, whilst his sleazy tales of drugs, violence and theft lack the glamour they once had. His stock defence runs along the lines of ‘this is art, like it or lump it’. That’s not good enough. Much of the album is largely, explicitly autobiographical, so how do we pick which bits we except as truth and which bits are artistic licence? He can’t tell us to buy into his sincerity and open heartedness one minute but dismiss the inexcusable stuff as ‘artistic licence’ the next.

That ‘Beauty Behind the Madness’ is enjoyable despite the often jarring language and content is to its credit. From the opening of ‘Real Life’ to the beautiful climax of ‘Angel’, the album is top to bottom a fun ride – overlong, certainly, but ambitious, eclectic and expertly produced. The Weeknd has always been a unique entity, and even if he never made a good album again, his place in the history of pop music would be guaranteed thanks to the enduring stylistic influence of ‘House of Baloons’. But ‘Beauty Behind the Madness’, and ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ in particular suggests that won’t be his only artistic legacy.

7.5/10

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