‘Take My Breath’, the only advance single from the Weeknd’s new album, could have been a one-off. Even if his appearance on the cover of Billboard magazine marked the dawn of a new era and he spent much of 2021 teasing it, with ‘Blinding Lights’ having just dethroned Chubby Checker’s ‘The Twist’ as the top Billboard 100 single of all time at the end of the year, it seemed like Abel Tesfaye could coast off the success of 2020’s After Hours for about another eternity. “We still celebratin’ Super Bowl,” he boasts on Dawn FM’s ‘Here We Go… Again’ referring to his Emmy-nominated Super Bowl LV halftime show, “Catalog lookin’ legendary.” (Fittingly enough, that happens to be the one song on the LP that echoes the gothic R&B of the Weeknd’s early days.) Two years later, the world was still getting to know the bloodied, red-jacketed character that made the album’s visuals so memorable. In between collaborations with Post Malone, Rosalía, and FKA twigs and news of his own HBO series, ‘Take My Breath’ could have served as just a reminder that only the Weeknd could make a euphoric anthem about erotic asphyxiation.
And so despite talks of an After Hours sequel, when the 31-year-old Toronto native released Dawn FM the same week he revealed its cover art – featuring an aged-up Tesfaye looking straight at the camera – and tracklist – featuring a mysterious appearance from his real-life neighbor Jim Carrey – it almost seemed too early for the next blockbuster. But as hinted by the thrilling extended version of ‘Take My Breath’, which remains indebted to ‘80s nostalgia, this is all part of the same universe. It’s not only the sonic signifiers that are familiar – with more than a hint of self-awareness, the singer returns to many of the lyrical motifs that have haunted his entire discography: ‘Gasoline’ contains enough of them in a single track (“I wrap my hands around your throat you love it when I always squeeze,” “I know you won’t let me OD,” “It’s 5 AM, I’m nihilist”) to almost undercut Tesfaye’s jarringly low vocals and unconventional production.
But the framing of Dawn FM is ambitious and conceptual in a way that presents those moments of debauchery and nihilism as part of a coherent and cathartically revealing journey. After Hours was gratifying in how it blurred the line between different sides of the Weeknd, but its dramatic vision came at the expense of a transcendent narrative – something Dawn FM sincerely attempts to grasp at by recreating a descent into oblivion rather than merely gesturing at it. Carrey serves as our guide in this journey towards the afterlife, playing a radio DJ in the imaginary radio station 103.5 Dawn-FM, which comes with its own cheesy commercial jingles. Right out of the gate, he promises a “painless transition” into the light, which is mirrored in the album’s own streamlined, brilliantly executed vision.
The fact that the Weeknd manages to retain this ultra-polished, glossy façade renders Dawn FM possibly his most accessible full-length to date. But he doesn’t so much hide beneath or fight against the shadows of this concept – or his own alter-ego – as he uses it to both escape and evoke the isolation that clearly pervades it. As much as it embraces easy listening tropes and a retro aesthetic you can mindlessly slip into, the album pulls off a tight balancing act between the opposing tendencies of its two executive producers, pop powerhouse Max Martin and experimental electronic producer Oneohtrix Point Never, resulting in an album that’s as grand and direct as it is absurd and layered. While none of the hooks here are nearly as gigantic as ‘Blinding Lights’ (few are), the Weeknd commits even more to creating an immersive experience, and despite his cryptic Twitter presence, he does so less enigmatically than on After Hours, filling the album with subtle surprises along the way. It’s how we get Tyler, the Creator rapping over the vocal harmonies of a Beach Boys member on ‘Here We Go… Again’ or a sample of Japanese city pop icon Tomoko Aran on ‘Out of Time’.
Tesfaye himself switches up characters a few times, although he’s more candid than ever – Dawn FM once again houses feelings of love and despair, but they seem to be born from a place of greater maturity and introspection. Making an appearance between two of the album’s most obvious Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson-indebted tracks, Quincy Jones examines how childhood trauma has affected his relationships with women in an interlude that segues into the record’s more reflective second half. There’s an eerie tension burbling underneath midtempo tracks like ‘Is There Someone Else?’ and ‘Don’t Break My Heart’, the same way Carrey’s soothing voice anything but conceals the dark absurdity of the whole premise. Although the journey is far from over by the end – the Weeknd has teased this might be part of a trilogy – he makes the project feel complete by resolving that tension with the triumphant ‘Less Than Zero’ and a wonderful spoken-word epilogue by Carrey that feels unexpected but somehow earned. “You gotta be heaven to see heaven,” he concludes, raising the question of whether Dawn FM has really captured the difference – still, it’s the closest the Weeknd has come to transcendence.