The Weeknd’s ‘My Dear Melancholy,’ Is an Emotional Return to Form

Abel Makkonen Tesfaye first came to the scene in 2010, uploading his enigmatic mixtapes to YouTube under the moniker The Weeknd. Eight years later he is a household name, having earned two number-one albums and three Grammys. Now, he has released surprise EP “My Dear Melancholy,” prompting gossip queens worldwide to drop their jaws in one grand, concerted motion. His latest record is salty, the rumored backstory is juicy, and it’s served on a silver platter of tunes that recall the rich sonic output of The Weeknd’s mixtape days. The songs are dark and lush, painstakingly crafted and painfully pronounced, the sounds of a tortured soul. It’s a testament to the idea that depression really is good for art.

Regarding the subject matter, it’s a celebrity love triangle — or perhaps a rectangle, as there are four parties involved. First, there’s singer and actress Selena Gomez, who once brought us an album titled, “Kiss & Tell.” Looks like it came back to haunt her… ouch. Selena and Abel split and she returned to her former boyfriend, seemingly sensing fate, as this Casanova once released a hit single precisely titled, “Boyfriend.” It’s no other than Canadian pop sensation and consummate cheeseball Justin Bieber. Finally, there’s the spectre of model and heiress Bella Hadid, former girlfriend of Tesfaye, lurking in the shadows. Ridiculous as the backstory may be, it appears to have inspired some of Tesfaye’s most heartfelt and thoroughly realized work in years.

In the opening track, “Call Out My Name,” Tesfaye belts, “I want you to stay even though you don’t want me / Girl, why can’t you wait ’til I fall out of love?” It is immediately apparent that this is the sound of a broken man, even if that man prides himself on being “a mutherfuckin’ starboy.” He continues, “I almost cut a piece of myself because of your life,” likely a reference to Gomez’s kidney transplant last summer due to complications from Lupus. Gomez ended up getting the kidney from her best friend Francia Raisa, but it appears Tesfaye was, at one point, considering being the donor. In “Try Me,” Tesfaye adds fuel to this interpretation, mentioning, “the way I kissed your scars.”

When Tesfaye continues, in “Try Me,” to declare, “I’m ready to go all the way if you let me,” it is unclear whether he means he’d put a ring on it, or just that he wants to get busy. There’s plenty unabashedly sexual language in the new record, making either interpretation a possibility. In “Wasted Time,” Tesfaye promises, “I’ll take my time to learn how your body functions.” One can picture him with anatomy charts and blow up dolls, making due on his promise, in pools of tears. In this particular song, he seems to have had it with Gomez, and is beckoning his previous love interest Hadid. In one line, he sings, “You were equestrian, so ride it like a champion.” Hadid was indeed once a horseback rider, with Olympic ambitions, making the context of Tesfaye’s crooning quite clear.

“Wasted Time” appears a turning point in Tesfaye’s emotional journey, as he resolves, “I aint got no business catching feelings anyway.” In “Hurt You,” he goes full passive aggressive, warning, “Stay away from me,” but clarifying, “I don’t wanna hurt you.” Five songs through, seemingly exhausted from bipolar histrionics, and perhaps winded from all the incessant whining, he finally concludes, in the last song, “Privilege,” “Enjoy your privileged life / ‘Cause I’m not gonna hold you through the night / We said our last goodbyes / So let’s just try to end it with a smile.”       

Musically, many old fans of The Weeknd will be in for a treat. “Call Out My Name” is R&B at its most gothic, a mechanical dirge with menacing, creeping bass and eerie atmospherics. Tesfaye repeats the titular line, his voice gradually developing into a distorted, demented howl. There is an unprecedented heaviness and affliction that emerges instantly and persists throughout the record. In “Try Me,” the central sample fades in and out of focus, while Tesfaye meanders along with his usual melismatic fare, never quite committing to a strongly compelling melody. The track captures the chaos and confusion of heartbreak and despair, and the struggle to find one’s way in the aftermath.    

“I Was Never There” features high-pitched West Coast hip hop synths, but the affair is miles from gin and juice. Instead of breezily gliding along melodies and emanating pure funk, the sound is wrenched at the ends, slightly discordant, conveying the sense of a romance gone wrong. Dark, reverberating snares abound throughout, and one can just imagine Tesfaye brooding in candlelight. Midway, the song elegantly segues in and out of a portion driven by an old school beat, creating the sensation of being captured by intrusive memories, and struggling to ground oneself in the present. Acclaimed French producer Gesaffelstein’s production truly shines during the song’s final minute, in which plaintive arpeggios shift in and out of focus, bubbling, twinkling, and evaporating.

“Hurt You” is the color negative of Tesfaye’s hit, “Starboy,” as if the same dance beat and pop template had been surrendered to darker forces in darker times. There’s a part that could be an EDM break if it were meant not for dancing, but rather for thinking about dancing — once, long ago. Gesaffelstein creates an infectious groove with fanciful retro percussive accents and trippy bursts of sounds, but keeps the arrangement open and uncluttered, leaving Tesfaye’s strained ruminations to fill the space. Both “Wasted Time” and “Privilege” recall the subdued, abstracted dubstep of Burial, with haunted choirs of suspended, repitched vocal samples. Sounds are muffled and cloaked in reverb, and there’s a feeling of hearing a beat from outside the club, through forbidding stone walls.    

In the final song, Tesfaye sings, “I got two red pills to take the blues away.” Of course, this might mean nothing more than numbing the pain by turning to drugs. But anyone who ever saw the era-defining film “The Matrix” might take this statement in a more positive light. A blue pill represents the choice to stay complacent and accept what has been handed to you, whereas a red pill represents the choice to transcend, and to venture into the real world. Tesfaye has had a lengthy dalliance with the most mainstream of the mainstream, and has attained remarkable commercial success. His recent music, however, has been sugar coated and watered down, and has left many fans missing the edginess of his early output. The pity party that is the new album repurposes the furniture of Tesfaye’s daring, adventurous early mixtape, “House of Balloons,” and will be heralded by many as a welcome return to form.  

My Dear Melancholy” is available March 30 on Apple Music