‘After Hours’ Captures the Weeknd at His Most Haunted and Visionary
When Abel Tesfaye dropped his 2011 mixtapes, now known collectively as “Trilogy,” under the moniker the Weeknd, he stunned listeners and critics alike with his dark, emotional onslaught and dense, visionary productions. His songs demonstrated an elusive edge unlike anything that had been seen in R&B for quite some time. It was a sound that seemed to lead the way into the future, and Tesfaye demanded attention, making his way rapidly into increasingly illustrious circles. By the time of 2015’s “Beauty Behind the Madness,” he had strayed considerably from his roots, teaming up with songwriter and producer Max Martin, known for his work with the likes of Katy Perry and Maroon 5. 2016’s “Starboy” showcased a different artist altogether, a decidedly pop persona supported by features ranging from Daft Punk to Future.
Along the way, Tesfaye made his way into a very public love triangle involving Bella Hadid and Selena Gomez. Fast forward to 2020, Gomez, having moved on, released her critically acclaimed album “Rare” this past January. It went without saying that Tesfaye would also release an album any moment, and “After Hours” is finally here, and is expectedly in an altogether different league. The record continues the trend back toward the Weeknd’s early style, first manifested on 2018’s “My Dear Melancholy EP,” which abounded with salty references to Tesfaye’s relationships with both Gomez and Hadid. While no names are explicitly mentioned in the new songs, it’s fair to assume that Hadid is a primary inspiration. Once again, heartbreak, and the neuroses it causes, can be credited for some of Tesfaye’s most satisfying work. The new release finds the Weeknd elegantly blending his avant-garde and pop tendencies into a dark, emotional concept album.
“Alone Again” is a return to the Weeknd’s early sound, a dark, atmospheric number full of twinkling keys, vinyl crackle, and Tesfaye’s trademark, haunting falsetto. Midway, ominous synth bass wobbles in polyrhythms and finally breaks into a beat. WIth Tesfaye’s crooning largely indecipherable, it’s more of a mood piece than a proper song. Still, it effectively sets the album’s loose storyline in motion. Tesfaye sings, “Take off my disguise / I’m living someone else’s life,” the first instance of something like a personality crisis that runs through the album, with Tesfaye alternating between decrying his wicked ways, and boasting about going back to them. Las Vegas, another recurrent feature in the Weeknd’s music dating back pack songs like “Heaven or Las Vegas,” makes its way in, with Tesfaye singing, “In Vegas I feel so at home.” On this note, we find him seeking solace in ladies of the night, lavishing them with money, boasting, “Count it up, it’s all for you, count it up,” but a split second later betraying his vulnerability, admitting, “I don’t know if I can sleep alone again
The dark textures and attention to detail continue into “Too Late,” but take the form of a heavily UK garage-influenced track. Tesfaye confesses, “I let you down, I led you on,” a tendency which you’ll hear more than enough of by the end of the record. He dismisses the media, in regard to their scrutiny of his relationships, singing, “Sources say that we’re done, how would they know?” Vegas continues to figure into the mix, although less favorably, in the observation, “We’re in Hell, it’s disguised as a paradise with flashing lights.” By the end of the track, the distorted bass has swelled to searing, gothic forms, as haunting voices hover above menacingly. The UK influence continues on “Hardest to Love,” this time with drum & bass stylings making a resurgence. It’s a thrilling sonic turn, especially when sped-up bass drums glitch up for fleeting moments, framing choice syllables in dramatic snapshots. Predictably, the lamentations over Tesfaye’s relationship with Hadid continue, and the song runs like an extension of its predecessor, with Tesfaye describing the unsettling sensation of watching an infatuation dissipate in real time, with acknowledgments like “I’ve been the hardest to love,” interspersed with cliches like “The house I bought is not a home.”
“Scared to LIve” is an emotional peak, and an exceptionally catchy cut. While less sonically adventurous than the preceding few tracks, it effectively captures the lovelorn sentiment expressed thus far, placing Tesfaye over a more conventional backdrop that gives him space to bleat away. Thudding ‘80s snares hint at sounds to come later on, and the impassionated chorus is the most poignant yet, interpolating the “I Hope You Don’t Mind” line from Elton John’s “Your Song.” The lyrics are hardly original, with fodder like “When I saw the signs, I shoulda let you go,” but Tesfaye makes them strike home with his heartfelt delivery. Meanwhile, his personality crisis continues, as he insists, “I am not the man I used to be,” while perhaps referring to the seedy encounters of the introductory track when he admits he “did some things I couldn’t let you see.”
At this point, things take a turn toward the autobiographical on “Snowchild,” with its title alluding to cocaine, and Tesfaye recollecting his rise from drug-addled days to major deals, arenas, mansions, and paparazzi. Unlike the innumerable R&B and hip-hop songs that follow such plotlines, this one is decidedly anticlimactic, with an unspirited refrain of “Leaving, leaving into the night,” mirrored in a fragile instrumental with a detuned synth tone sustained over rickety percussion. Next, “Escape From LA” brings more sonic edge, with a drum track that slickly shifts rhythms at key points, at once disorienting and exhilarating. It captures the feeling of being out of step, as Tesfaye struggles to sort out his rocky relationship, and eventually concludes that he has to get out of the fast-paced city. Sirens bleeding out of the nebulous mix second the feeling, both mimicking the chaos of its streets and hinting at the urgency of escape.
Next comes the previously released “Heartless,” which finds Tesfaye lapsing into his old ways, and relishing them, bragging about “selling dreams to these girls with their guard down.” Released along with “Blinding Lights” last November, the song suggests a halfhearted stab at inspiration in Kanye West. Tesfaye, however, boasts about being heartless himself, unlike Kanye, who asks in his song, “How could you be so heartless.” Kanye’s approach seems much more consistent with the other songs on Tesfaye’s album, suggesting that the aforementioned identity issues might be now spiraling out of control. “Faith” returns to the sentiments intimated in the opening track, and plunges further into the abyss. Tesfaye likens his relapse into drugs to a loss of faith. He continues to struggle between the drives of his old and new selves, now confessing, “Thought I’d be a better man, but I lied to me and to you.” Beginning with a punchy synth bass stomp, taking up an insistent beat upon the chorus, and eventually dissolving into an ambient soundscape full of street noise and eerie, ethereal sound art, it’s one of the album’s most painstakingly crafted productions.
“Blinding Lights” shows an unanticipated side of Tesfaye’s aesthetic, trading the melismatic crooning and dark ambiance for new wave, synth pop stylings and bright, beaming production. The gleeful tune comes with some darker sentiments, however, with Tesfaye changing his tune about Vegas, now declaring, “Sin City’s cold and empty.” Building on the momentum of this track, Tesfaye somehow manages to go even more unabashedly ‘80s on “In Your Eyes.” Driven by an outrageous synth bass riff, the track finds Tesfaye, at moments, subtly channeling Michael Jackson, as he has often done adeptly. Two-thirds of the way, a saxophone enters, which should get the point across, regarding how subtle the ensemble has been with their retro indulgences. The lyrics could hardly be more generic, with lines like “In your eyes / I see there’s something burning inside you.” Then again, it suits the style of the music. At this point, it seems Tesfaye has sought solace from all his heartbreak, and the identity issues that come along with it, by diving headlong into nostalgia. If there ever were a decade to welcome such a diversion with its foolhardy, hedonistic stylings, it would be the ‘80s. And so, the story continues with “Save Your Tears.” Tesfaye who has practically cried his way through every song so far, now giddily sings, “I’ll make you cry when I run away,” then consoles, “Save your tears for another day.” Perhaps the escapism has extended beyond sonic stylings, to a whole fantastic alternate reality. At any rate, it’s a catchy song that stands apart from the others in its relatively bright tone and twee melody.
“Repeat After Me” is an interlude which finds Tesfaye instructing, “repeat after me,” and continuing, “You don’t love him if you’re thinking of me,” trying his best to hammer the point home. For this track, he switches up producers, recruiting both avant garde electronic mastermind Oneohtrix Point Never and psychedelic polymath Kevin Parker, better known as Tame Impala. They keep the sound impressively consistent with the overall feel of the album, but stretch it further out, with evanescent synth ripples and a wealth of spacey sound design. This leads elegantly into the title track, which functions as an effective composite of the two distinct forms that the Weeknd has assumed over the years. In the beginning, it’s closer to Tesfaye’s “Trilogy” beginnings than any track since then, a bit like the sounds that opened the album, but even darker, with more emphasis on ambience and attention to detail. Then a basic beat drops, and the track settles into accessible, dance territory. By the end, an outrageously flanged-out synth bass has set it all over the top, adding enough edge to the overall mix to make for a successful marriage of styles. The lyrics, on the other hand, can be downright cringey — “I wanna share babies / Protection, we won’t need,” making lines liike “I be livin’ in heaven when I’m inside of you” sound like lofty poetry. Tefaye reiterates, “I turned into the man I used to be, to be,” although the acknowledgement suggests he’s since progressed again. Finally, “Until I Bleed Out” pans elegantly out from the climax of the title track, stretching the affair out and fading into the distance, as Tesfaye croons in a haze of amorphous, mutating noise, repeating, “I wanna cut you outta my dreams / ‘Til I’m bleeding out.”
The final words of the final track are “I keep telling myself I don’t need it.” If you looped the album, this would seque neatly into Tesfaye’s backtracking and looking to drugs and escorts in the seedy quarters of Sin City, as described on the opening track. Considering that the same themes of heartbreak, desperation, and instability have formed the bulk of Tesfaye’s subject matter since “My Dear Melancholy,” it wouldn’t be surprising if this were by design. Tesfaye is caught in a perpetual cycle of lovelorn distress, searching to fill the void in the dark, desolate “After Hours.” There are glimmering lights, chance escapades, traumatic flashbacks, and moments of triumph and tragedy along the way. Where the Weeknd goes from here, there’s no telling, but as he lingers in this cavernous headspace, he’s left us with plenty of music to enjoy.
“After Hours” is available March 20 on Apple Music.