Album Review: The Weeknd – Dawn FM

On first impression, Dawn FM has two things I generally love by default: a loose concept that vaguely threads the songs together in some form of a central idea or narrative… and fake radio drops and jingles. As a lifelong “radio geek,” who grew up listening incessantly to the local Top 40 station in lieu of going outside with the other kids, my love for radio went way beyond hearing what song was next in the queue. It was the whole thing – the slickness of the segues, the sharpness of the DJ’s announcements, the immaculately timed and produced ads. But one thing I loved, and still do, frankly, is how a radio station’s format will set the tone, the whole vibe for what goes on when a song isn’t playing.

Classic rock stations are casual. Country stations are cheerful. Top 40 stations are fun and energetic. Alternative stations are snarky and sarcastic. Rap stations are energetic as well, but also more informed with the local scene. And Jim Carrey on Dawn 103.5 is a comforting companion, guiding you on a journey, according to Abel Tesfaye, out of a Los Angeles tunnel in gridlocked traffic. By extension, and not-so-subtley referenced by DJ Truman Show, the tunnel represents a type of purgatory, and Dawn FM is the friendly, sometimes funky, soundtrack.

These sounds are primarily brought to you by the unlikely production duo Max Martin and Daniel Lopatin (of Oneohtrix Point Never notoriety), though others make an appearance, including our favorite Funk Wav Bouncer, Calvin Harris. Throughout the album, Tesfaye plays only slightly with a winning formula, continuing the synth worship and 80s influence that permeated throughout his blockbuster effort After Hours. But while tracks like “Blinding Lights” drew comparisons to new wave, the vibe has grown more nocturnal this time around. The new loops are more sinister, akin to something that might compel John Carpenter to hit the dance floor.

Tesfaye, or should we say his alter-ego The Weeknd, doesn’t stray too far lyrically from the topics we are accustomed to hearing from him – sex, hedonism, struggles with relationships. Sonically, he’s come a long way from the hazy strip club nights that were documented on House of Balloons, but The Weeknd is still tackling those demons, albeit with a shiny, new pandemic-induded bout of existentialism.

But not isolation – while The Weeknd mostly rode solo on After Hours, this time around we are treated to some excellent guest appearances from Tyler, the Creator (alongside Bruch Johnston of the Beach Boys on “Here We Go…. Again”) and Lil Wayne rapping over a Daniel Lopatin beat (on the exquisite “I Heard You’re Married”), which is something I am pleased to hear and also something I never thought I would ever hear. We also can’t fail to mention the other party on Dawn FM that was involved in Uncut Gems other than Tesfaye and Lopatin, and that’s director Josh Safdie, who makes a brief appearance in the trippy infomercial “Every Angel Is Terrifying.”

But of course the star here is The Weeknd, who sounds more confident than ever – his vocal inflections and experimentation, most notably on “Gasoline,” support a robust wave of immaculate and consistent production. Abel is intertwined with the sound of pop in the third decade of this century, alongside A+ peers like Dua Lipa, but simultaneously his approach is singular and unmistaken. A great example is the new single “Sacrifice,” which is an absolute floor-filler reminiscent of another superstar that Tesfaye has been compared to before – Michael Jackson, but could only come from The Weeknd.

We also hear the influence of legend Quincy Jones on “Out of Time,” which is equal parts slow funk jam and quiet storm radio. (Jones also shows up for an autobiographical spoken-word interlude.) Then there’s “Less Than Zero,” an immediate highlight that sounds like a mix of The War On Drugs and The Bangles “Manic Monday” with additional melancholy. It all serves to continue Tesfaye’s natural progression as an engaging auteur in sidestep with sustained superstar status.

If there’s anyone who serves to upstage The Weeknd on his own album, it’s Carrey, who gets the final word – an extended monologue that serves to encompass the theme of the past hour: “you gotta be heaven to see heaven.”

Since we’re talking about the “theme” of this whole thing, I’m not sure it fully translates, though I want to note that isn’t necessarily an issue. While the lyrics are typical Weeknd fare (with a few exceptions that mention “dying in the discotheque” etc), the things that surround them present the concept Abel was going for here. The allusions to the end of one’s life, the statement of facing the light after so much darkness, the metaphor of a tunnel as purgatory – all these things hint to a more wistful outlook on nostalgia, the part that aches more than excites. Add in the artwork of an elderly Weeknd and Carrey’s transcendental musings and the project reveals a positive outlook on death. Again, while this is all there on the surface, at times the concept feel unfocused, especially when paired with Abel’s standard lyrical tropes about drugs and sex.

But to repeat for emphasis, this doesn’t hamper the quality of the album to any significant degree. Most concept albums don’t go all the way, and those that do are usually remembered as jumbled messes. There are also the ones that only set up the concept as window dressing for what is ultimately just a collection of unrelated songs. On Dawn FM, The Weeknd’s concept falls somewhere in the middle, which is good enough for me, since it allows the listener, who probably has their own pandemic-related baggage going on, to interpret the album for themselves. It’s not all tied up in a bow, but the message isn’t under-realized here either.

What it really comes down to is the music, and it’s easily the strongest set of songs of Abel Tesfaye’s career, which also gives Dawn FM the recognition of being the first exciting and interesting pop album of 2022. The Weeknd’s ever-improving songwriting is surrounded by consistently strong soundscapes that evoke longing and yearning like all the best pop music before it. Altogether it’s an immersive journey through the tunnel, tuned in to something slightly left of the dial… or as Carry calls it, that divine boogaloo.

Score: 9/10

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