The Weeknd ‘After Hours’ – Review

30 Mar

The Weeknd has fluctuated between greatness and mediocrity since the start. In fact, he might be the most inconsistent pop star of the past decade (with, perhaps, the exception of frequent collaborator Drake). ‘House of Balloons’ was an exceptionally accomplished mixtape, one that redefined the boundaries between R&B and indie and can reasonably be called the most influential debut in recent memory. Its quick follow up, ‘Thursday’, was totally forgettable. In the years since, his releases have generally skewed from the pretty good (‘Beauty Beneath the Madness’, ‘My Dear Melancholy’) to the pretty bad (‘Starboy’, ‘Kiss Land’). But nothing (save perhaps the mesmerising single ‘I Can’t Feel My Face’) has touched ‘House of Balloons’ greatness.

And it’s becoming increasingly clear that in all probability nothing else ever will. Nonetheless, ‘After Hours’ is his most successful album since that debut. It is easily more consistent and enjoyable than anything he’s put out recently. Here, The Weeknd has managed to artfully blend the blurred melodies and bruised beats of his nascent mixtapes with a brighter pop production. It results in both catchy hit singles like ‘In Your Eyes’ and ‘Blinding Lights’ alongside darker excursions such as ‘Repeat After Me’ and ‘After Hours.’ It’s hard to imagine a better amalgamation of The Weeknd’s varied interests and tendencies.

The Weeknd’s last album, 2017’s terribly transparent ‘Starboy’, was bloated with filler and suggested that the artist who had made his name with a trilogy of expertly curated and cohesive mixtapes, had lost sense of his own strengths. ‘After Hours’, on the other hand, despite clocking in at nearly an hour, is largely fat free. It’s also surprising – considering how stodgy and lethargic ‘Starboy’ felt – that ‘After Hours’ is ingeniously sequenced; slowly morphing from noirish r&b in to a blockbuster pop record. Producer Illangelo, sonic architect since the early days, is back but his more experimental urges are largely kept in bay by an array of mainstream pop producers like Max Martin, Metro Boomin and Frank Dukes. Together they weave divergent threads together in to a cohesive whole.

In a recent SNL television appearance, Abel Tesfaye emerged bandaged and bruised; fake blood dripping on to a sharp red suit. This visual juxtaposition between the immaculate and the nihilistic neatly symbolises the musical and lyrical themes of ‘After Dark’. Across the album Tesfaye describes his vices – drugs, sex, narcissism – while, occasionally, striving to escape them. ‘I don’t wanna touch the Sky no more / I just wanna feel the ground when I’m coming down’ he declares on the album’s closing track. Only seconds later, he puts it more bluntly ‘I don’t wanna get high no more.’ Of course this is very familiar territory for The Weeknd. The problem is, he never convinces you that this is an honest aim. He opens the album by using signifiers of indulgence to create a cloying, convenient mood. It’s too hollow. Too easy. Too predictable. This is true of too much lyrical content, particularly in the album’s opening half. He’s depicting the same daemons that he has used as crutches in the past and far too often it feels insincere. On the otherwise engaging ‘Too Late’ he reverts to the familiar cliches – ‘don’t let me drown’, ‘bad thoughts inside my mind when the darkness comes’ ‘we’re in hell’. This is not deep and it’s not moving. It’s a Hollywood exploration of depression and dependency.

The pop ballads strike me as more authentic. The pristine ‘Scared to Live’ is surprisingly generous and regretful. He even sounds vulnerable on ‘Save Your Tears’, where he describes his personal heartbreak and uncertainty in totally relatable terms. Here he comes to the realisation that he is at fault for his own failures and makes an effort to transcend that pain. The metaphor he returns to, time and time again throughout the album, is of bleeding out his demons. ‘I wanna cut you outta my mind’, ‘girl I’m bleeding out.’ But there is a lot about what he wants or doesn’t want to do, and not a lot of positive action. It amplifies the sense of indulgence and self pity that sours the album’s mood and prevents ‘After Hours’ from being a loveable album (and I’ve not even mentioned the misogyny and sickly puns that taint ‘Snowchild’, ‘Leaving L.A’ and ‘Heartless.’)

But you don’t necessarily listen to The Weeknd to deep dive into the lyrics. Frequently these day his music is an aesthetic. A debauched lifestyle soundtrack. That’s a bit of a shame, considering how much meaning we could derive from his early, genuinely conflicted, mix tapes. But then again, the flawless pop of ‘Blinding Lights’, ‘In Your Eyes’, ‘Scared to Live’, ‘Save Your Tears’ and ‘Hardest to Love’ makes it feel like a fair exchange. These are some of the best high concept pop songs of the year. Considering these songs have come from The Weeknd – an artist I once loved but just about given up on – makes ‘After Hours’ feel all the more like something to cherish in these uncertain times.

7.5/10

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