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by M.G. Mailloux Music Pop Rocks

The Weeknd — Dawn FM

February 23, 2022

The Weeknd might not be loved by all, but he knows how to ride a trend, and Dawn FM continues that streak.

These days, Abel Tesfaye occupies a pretty elite stratum of the pop music world as The Weeknd, straddling the line between consistent Billboard hits and a relatively solid rate of success with critics. With a large cross-section of the industry eager to work with him and seemingly no label opposition to his indulgent runtimes and relatively frequent drops (they probably find this appealing, actually), Tesfaye is, in this moment, unsinkable and likely will remain so barring some sort of dramatic pivot or career subversion. And so, The Weeknd’s focus has inevitably drifted toward notions of purgatory and the burdens of fame, two concepts with an obvious interconnectedness that have vaguely informed his last couple releases, and which now form the basis for a more literally minded concept album interpretation: Dawn FM.

Picking up from where they left off with their very memed Super Bowl 2021 halftime show, Dawn FM reunites Tesfaye with Oneohtrix Point Never (that program’s musical director), while also inviting Max Martin back into the fold (having become one of The Weeknd’s most essential collaborators at this point). All three assume executive producer responsibility here, overseeing a varied stable of pop and EDM producers whose collective contributions they’ve refined into a fairly consistent sonic aesthetic. Their total efforts amount to a chilly portrait of late-night/early-morning debauchery and reckonings, moody dance tracks that sit at the expected intersection of vapor and ‘80s pop production reclamation. Tesfaye puts his clout to work here, roping in fellow Canadian icon Jim Carrey for a series of eerie monologues that provide the album with its structure, casting the Bruce Almighty star as an otherworldly FM radio host guiding you out of a purgatorial state and into the light. Whether or not the songs in between Carrey’s musings add up to any legible continuity could be debated, which perhaps discredits The Weeknd’s cinematic aspirations here (telegraphed via spoken word interludes from Josh Safdie and Quincy Jones, who’s also on hand to lend legitimacy to this album’s general Off the Wall homage), but otherwise hardly matters.

Dawn FM may lose track of its proposed narrative, but Tesfaye, OPN, and Martin maintain a firm grip on their overall palette and tone, remarkable when considering the number of disparate and significant contributing producers they oversaw for this project (Calvin Harris, Swedish House Mafia… Bruce Johnston?) Not a new or unique aesthetic certainly (OPN has played around with many of these ideas before on his own albums), but one that’s too well-suited to The Weeknd vibe to dismiss, Dawn FM effectively evokes the rock bottom sensation that creeps in after an all-night bender, paralleling this sensation with a perspective aimed at maturation and reconciliation. Which isn’t to say The Weeknd has gotten much tamer, bringing nihilistic new-wave menace to the wonderfully melodic “Gasoline” in his recounting of a bleak Bret Easton Ellis type scene (whose work is echoed in more sentimental fashion in penultimate track “Less Than Zero”), and saving a spot for his classic sexually frank crooning on “Here We Go…Again,” an impassioned R&B sing-along disrupted briefly by an abrupt Tyler verse. Dawn FM’s big themes feel more like gestures than actual fixations for the artists who have masterminded this album, with inconsistencies and redundancies from song to song, but of course The Weeknd’s chic, tortured persona is itself contradictory in a way that inherently justifies this sort of oscillation. But while it’s true that post-Beauty Behind the Madness Tesfaye hasn’t quite figured out how to get a truly great project out of this format/release pace, Dawn FM at least maintains him as a dependable trend rider and craftsman of pop spectacle.

Published as part of Album Roundup — January 2022 | Part 2.