Last year, American singer-songwriter The Weeknd announced that he would be boycotting the Grammy Awards and that none of his future music would be submitted for consideration. This followed a snub that shocked the world for an album heard by almost all of the world. The album in question, 2020’s After Hours, was largely lauded as a triumph for Abel Tesfaye who up until that point had been slowly building his repertoire of slow burning R&B and flirtations with mellow synthwave informed pop. After Hours was the ultimate synthesis of The Weeknd persona; fusing neon soaked 80’s new wave and dream pop with Tesfaye’s scuzzy, louche R&B melodies and lyrics. Tracing the arc of a night out in Las Vegas, After Hours was a thematic deep dive into concepts around excess, hedonism and self-destruction by way of over indulgence. The album’s promotional cycle echoed this with much fanfare. Dressed for red carpets in red designer suits and a fake, bloodied face covered in bandages, The Weeknd sold the iconography as a means to the music. The inescapable Blinding Lights became a mainstay for on the hour, every hour pop radio and part of its allure could be attributed to the larger than life performances of the song for awards shows and television spots. The 2020 MTV VMAs opened with The Weeknd performing the song on the roof of one of New York’s highest and lushest skyscrapers, delivered to stage by helicopter which then proceeded to ominously circle the building as the performance ensued. Everything about After Hours seemed poised (and hitherto designed) for impenetrable mainstream success. And then the 2021 Grammy nominations were announced, sans The Weeknd.
The world was shocked, confused. How could the biggest, most zeitgeist defining pop song since Royals not be considered Record of The Year worthy? How could the larger than life promotional theatrics-cum-performance-art that would have secured Lady Gaga a list of nods be paid dust? Many theorised that the timing was off. A dance record being embraced as Album of The Year in the midst of a pandemic was always going to be a tough sell, it made sense that the honour should go to Taylor Swift’s knitted cardigan of an album Folklore. Perhaps it was a response to the Grammy’s lack of diversity. 2021 yielded the show’s most woman nominees (and subsequent winners) to date. It was likely in the throes of this debate that Tesfaye realised it was never really about the music, and made the choice to pull out of pandering to committees to focus on what really mattered; the sound. It’s unsurprising then that Dawn FM should not only arrive as his least ‘promoted’ album, but also his most accomplished to date. By refusing to consider mainstream awards appeal as crucial to his pop persona or success, Tesfaye has opened the Pandora’s Box of his artistic potential and has managed to create one of the most beguiling, provocative and sonically impressive pop albums in recent memory.
While After Hours was a record that revelled in the grotesque excess of being alive, Dawn FM is an album about purgatory or more specifically, the experience of being stuck between life and death. Thematically, it’s clear how The Weeknd’s disillusionment of the industry has informed this direction. It may also have informed the concept of the album as a whole. Dawn FM plays out like an imagined “commercial radio station” that the listener is tuned into while stuck in a tunnel-cum-purgatory, driving the road to the afterlife or total annihilation. The album as broadcast concept is not entirely novel, Frank Ocean did this with Channel Orange, as did Queens of the Stone Age and to some extent Janelle Monet with Metropolis. What distinguishes Dawn FM is not so much its device but rather, its setting. Complete with imagined jingles, ad spots and an off the charts performance by Jim Carrey as a netherworld DJ guiding you towards the light, Dawn FM is an autopsy into the architecture of The Weeknd persona that is entirely self-aware and fixated on entropy. There’s a Beckett-like sensibility to Dawn FM’s inherent nihilism; an absurdist rumination on the futility of everything that After Hours extolled. “It’s 5AM, I’m nihilist, I know there’s nothing after this” Tesfaye’s vocoder filtered voice laments against cavernous modular synth rolls and a booming mid-fi kick on opener Gasoline. Later, on the Daft Punk adjacent synth funk of Sacrifice, he confesses to a lover that “this life is still worth living.. I don’t want to sacrifice, but I love my time.”
It becomes apparent we are witnessing The Weeknd’s descent into annihilation in real time, told by way of the music he is listening to on Dawn FM as he trans/descends into certain nothingness. On the R&B slow jam Out of Time, he begs to have his lover let him come back but is interrupted by the voice of Jim Carrey announcing “Don’t you dare touch that dial, because like the song says, you are out of time… but don’t panic, there’s still more music to come before you’re completely engulfed…” From this point on, Dawn FM shifts toward signature The Weeknd, with Tesfaye crooning over softly simmering synths, modular whines and dramatic chord progressions. Every Angel is Terrifying is essentially a trailer for the afterlife set against a lo-fi, monstrous synthwave score. Tresfaye puts on his best trailer man voice while vehemently announcing, “provocative, edgy, thought provoking… technically and visually stunning..the exotic, bizarre and beautiful world of After Life.” With rumours already swirling that Dawn FM forms part of a triptych that ends with what many are assuming will be called After Life, it’s a somewhat meta, entirely kitschy skit that’s not without function; asides like these and Quincy Jones’s spoken word pierce A Tale By Quincy feel essential to the framework holding up the universe of Dawn FM.
With such lofty conceptual ambitions, it’s a triumph that Dawn FM avoids collapsing in on itself in the same way that similar concept albums tend to do (Animal Collective comes to mind). Much of this success can be accredited to the genius of American experimental electronic musician Daniel Lopatin, or Oneohtrix Point Never (OPN). Together with pop wizard Max Martin and Tesfaye himself, the sonic world building that this team of executive producers create for Dawn FM is incredibly distinct and most importantly, cohesive. OPN in particular can be felt as the architect behind the record’s ever present uncanniness. Sometimes outright, sometimes lurking beneath the layers, his moments of unerring squiggles and off-kilter sounds become an omnipresence over Dawn FM reminding us that we are still stuck in a tunnel bound for the afterlife or whatever comes next. Even at its most straightforward and hook heavy (credit to Martin here) OPN is there to pull us closer to our impending doom. It’s in the snarling, demonic echo of Tesfaye’s voice on Don’t Break My Heart, or on the squelching synth wriggles squirming under tracks like Best Friends. Special mention must be made of the near flawless transition from How Do I Make You Love Me? into previously released single Take My Breath, which sounds remarkably more impressive in the scope of the rest of Dawn FM than it ever has on its own.
Dawn FM is a marvellously ambitious pop record, perhaps the most ambitious pop record since Lady Gaga’s gonzo Born This Way or more similarly, Justin Timberlake’sThe 20/20 Experience. It sees The Weeknd play outside of his lane like never before. In a moment where mainstream pop finds itself enamoured with cottagecore in the ilk of Evermore and Solar Power, Dawn FM is a reminder of commercial pop’s endless potential when its boundaries are pushed toward new shapes and spaces, away from the sway that mainstream accolades may have on the direction of the music. For The Weeknd, to reach for these places is to implode his drugged out Starboy and dress up in whatever remains. Like Vincent Price did for Michael Jackson on his similar magnum opus Thriller, Jim Carrey closes this chapter in the legend of The Weeknd by offering a final bit of Faustian wisdom against an ominously mournful organ; “In other words, you gotta be heaven to see heaven. May Peace be with you.”
See the music video for Gasoline from Dawn FM below.