I can’t recall ever feeling trolled as a Rainer Maria Rilke fan by a major pop artist’s album before. But that’s what happened when I spotted the title “Every Angel is Terrifying,” a famous line from the early 20th-century German poet’s revered Duino Elegies, in the tracklist of The Weeknd’s new album, Dawn FM. Using a surprise-release strategy that seems almost old-fashioned now, the artist only confirmed the existence of 2022’s first high-profile record earlier this week, days before it appeared on streaming services midnight Friday.
Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angels’/ Orders?
But that late hour always feels like an appropriate time to hear from Abel Tesfaye, the Canadian pop-R&B bard of desperate, debauched night-time indulgences and anxieties. That’s especially so for Dawn FM, which is framed as a broadcast from an unearthly radio station DJ’d by of all people Jim Carrey (Tesfaye’s fellow Canadian, childhood hero, and current L.A. neighbor), as the listener drives through the dark into the proverbial light of the afterlife to these heavily 1980s synthpop-inflected rhythms.
O and the night, the night, when the wind full of worldspace/
gnaws at our faces— for whom won’t the night be there/
desired, softly disappointing, setting hard tasks/
for the single heart.
The aforementioned Rilke-quoting track here, the 12th of the album’s 16, turns out to be a kind of a feint—it opens with just a couple of spoken lines of the poet’s classic “First Elegy” (including the first one above, but not the rest), before transitioning into a fake radio ad for the afterlife, which is itself a very 1980s move, with its high-low, culture-remixing, sound-collage style. The whole radio-station conceit ultimately has very little to do with the individual songs on Dawn FM. Still, it’s part of a conceptual bent one might not expect from a pop singer whose previous album, After Hours, included multiple major hits, among them the top-selling song of 2020, “Blinding Lights.” (In fact, this past November, Billboard declared it the top Hot 100 song of all time,.) Tesfaye nurtures auteur-filmmaker ambitions—he had a small role in Uncut Gems and now has a cable series in development with HBO, fittingly about a cult leader based at a nightclub—and these fantasy frameworks have long been part of his creative process. The long promotional cycle for After Hours, which culminated with last year’s Super Bowl halftime show, consistently featured him clad in a sparkly red blazer and makeup that suggested car-accident injuries and/or plastic surgery.
Remember: the hero lives on, even his downfall/
was only a pretext for attained existence: his ultimate birth.
You’d have to be a bigger Weeknd fan than I am to have followed that narrative, which remains true of the new one on Dawn FM. But you don’t need to understand the story to appreciate the tunes: They’re simply a new set of supremely catchy, “I almost died at the discotheque” (as he sings on “Don’t Break My Heart”) sagas of mortal or moral hazard and heartbreak from the Weeknd. This time around, however, there’s more stress on his tender side, sometimes with Tesfaye’s love objects even emerging as individuals with some degree of agency.
This mellowing might be just a pandemic pivot—he’s told interviewers that he scrapped an earlier version of the album that was too “emotionally detrimental” for the moment. The first single, “Take My Breath,” released last summer, played with fantasies of erotic asphyxiation that seemed less arousing in the context of a global pandemic of respiratory disease. While the track appears on Dawn FM in a more enticing extended version, none of the other songs flirt with imagery quite so grim.
And so I grip myself and choke down that call note/
of dark sobbing.
However, the shift—which goes as far as declaring desires for fidelity and monogamy in “I Heard You’re Married”—might also mark a gradual evolution in the persona of the Weeknd, whose dark, dysfunctional antics are less and less related to the actual, moderate and hardworking life of the real-life Abel, now in his early 30s.
… to stop being what one was in endlessly anxious hands/
and ignore even one’s own name like a broken toy.
The radio-station conceit does enhance the album’s nostalgic, one-step-removed feel, much the way an early 2010s-mixtape concept did for last year’s Tyler, the Creator album; Tyler guests here (somewhat forgettably) on the very yacht-rock-ish track, “Here We Go … Again.” Perhaps most valuably, the format gives Tesfaye and his producers—primarily his longtime collaborator Max Martin and more recent helpmate Daniel Lopatin (a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never)—greater license to indulge their throwback sonic instincts, as well as to transition seamlessly, DJ-style, between tracks. The sudden, always belated realization that the previous song has already ended and a new one begun brings on a pleasantly startled frisson, almost as one might hope about the transition between one plane of reality and another.
The eternal current/
sweeps all the ages with it through both kingdoms/
forever and drowns their voices in both.
Tesfaye’s singing voice, strongly influenced by his Ethiopian-Canadian roots, has often been called angelic. But I’m not sure we’ve ever heard it in so many contrasting modes before; along with performing his signature Michael Jackson-heir style at peak levels on songs like “Sacrifice” and “Out of Time,” he affects an improbable, delightful Depeche Mode/Pet Shop Boys British-accented drawl on “Gasoline.” And he finds a tone between his standard sexual-choir-boy croon and a pop-rock delivery to suit perhaps the album’s simplest and most effective evocation of 1980s synth-pop, “Less Than Zero,” its title taken from Bret Easton Ellis’s iconic 1980s cocaine novel. The template varies just enough over the album’s course to avoid becoming as numbing as that white powder (as celebrated in the Weeknd’s 2015 hit “Can’t Feel My Face”), thanks to Lopatin’s unpredictable synth squiggles and assists from the likes of the Swedish House Mafia, who lend their own distinctive club pulse most memorably to “Sacrifice.”
Voices, voices. Listen, my heart, the way/
only saints have listened till now, as that vast call/
lifted them from the ground…. listeners fully absorbed.
Whether the songs from Dawn FM will graze “Blinding Lights” levels of commercial success strikes me as dubious. The Weeknd is now part of the cohort of millennial stars nudged aside by Gen Z, and it seems unpromising that dated chart king Max Martin’s stamp is still so evident here and that (partly as a result) the songs are still so in debt to a 1980s sheen that’s rapidly being displaced by newer-minted nostalgias (e.g., for the emo, indie, and glitchier cyber-pop sounds of the mid-2000s). The groove of the album as a whole, and the smooth confidence with which Tesfaye puts the songs across, make it an immensely listenable record, but it’s no milestone. In fact, Dawn FM seems like more of a waystation to something else, which might even prove to be a gradual exit from music as a main creative outlet for Tesfaye. In this way, both the highway-to-heaven radio idea and the allusion to Rilke’s “First Elegy” (which I’m guessing cinephile Tesfaye might have picked up on from Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire) might not be trolling at all, but unexpectedly apt: Dawn FM may seem in retrospect like the moment when, like the existentially unmoored spirits in Rilke’s poem, the Weeknd as we know him has died but not yet realized it.
Is it a tale told in vain …/
in which a daring first music pierced the shell of numbness:/
stunned Space, which an almost divine youth/
had suddenly left forever; then, in that void, vibrations—/
which for us now are rapture and solace and help.
That said, Dawn FM does commit one unforgivable crime against poetry. It is the Carrey-written and performed final track, “Phantom Regret by Jim,” in which the Grinch star (and possible future Dr. Seuss biopic lead ) sends the album off with a bunch of Hollywood psycho-spiritual babble, wincingly rhymed in a sloppy take on Seuss’s trademark anapestic tetrameter. If you can stand it more than once, you are stronger than me. I offer the same advice about this album that I would if you really were in a vehicle speeding to the boundary between life and death: Oh dear friends, for your sake/ Make sure that you hop/ Away from this journey/ Before that last stop!