The Weeknd Tunes Into a New Reality on ‘Dawn FM’

When the world locked down at the onset of the pandemic, Abel Tesfaye, the enigmatic superstar behind the moniker of The Weeknd, was among the few voices that came through on time. His 2020 release, “After Hours,” was a cynical radiance of overdue excesses that struck a fair balance between the dark, layered edge of his early mixtapes and the carefree, “Starboy” excursions that followed. Its instantly infectious hit single, “Blinding Lights,” rapidly became an ubiquitous presence, effectively soundtracking the year. Since the massive roll out of “After Hours,” Tesfaye has teased a new direction to his particularly volatile and fruitful artistry with a vague reference to an upcoming “dawn.” The Weeknd’s latest album, “Dawn FM,” makes due on that promise. Steadily continuing his transition from recording artist to something of a performance artist, the record was introduced to the world through an album listening event, in which Tesfaye, costumed as a hyperreal, aged version of himself, played the upbeat album as a DJ, ostensibly reacting to the absurdity of pandemic times, imagining something of a purgatory state. On “Dawn FM,” Tesfaye reverts unabashedly into ‘80s stylings, while taking an increasingly theatrical focus. This time, he ventures into an altered FM radio reality, one where Jim Carrey narrates as the disc jockey of the “Dawn FM” station, while Tesfaye gravitates to the same amorous quandaries that have always comprised the bulk of his subject matter, within a glistening sonic context that offers an escape from the moment. 

“Dawn FM’s” title track begins with a brief, but pointed, retro excursion, a consummately stylized synth pop flurry that quickly gives way to Jim Carrey’s opening radio announcements. Before he begins, Tesfaye expels a couple of indicators — “Make me believe in make-beliefs / ‘Cause after the light, is it dark?” The entire album plays out in this gray zone, with the often dark subject matter presented in the sheen of disarming retro stylings. Carrey introduces the radio station, “103.5 Dawn FM,” and declares, “You’ve been in the dark for way too long / It’s time to walk into the light.” Ultimately, the overtly conceptual act offers a winking disclaimer, setting the stage for the feelgood, escapist fare to come. 

What erupts is a sound culled from the styles of the early ‘80s, one with a specific resonance, bearing vestiges of the ‘70s in disco artifacts, and beaming with the gleeful excess of the era. The calm, confident radio voice that greets us at the onset is a reminder that this is, somewhat, an escapist regression. “Gasoline” kicks off with Tesfaye making nihilistic declarations in a jokey, transatlantic accent, then breaking into a choir boy voice to offer explicit directions for the disposal of his body in the case that he be found dead. The music is decidedly celebratory, a pulsating ‘80s thump, but with eerie synth washes courtesy of avant electronic producer Daniel Lopatin, better known as Oneohtrix Point Never. “Take My Breath,” the lead single, is the other darkest track, with the titular lyrics skirting around nuances of deadly breath play, although it’s set to an effervescent tune, with French house stylings that scream of electronic duo Justice.  

A few tracks are wide-eyed love songs — “How Do I Make You Love Me,” “Starry Eyes,” “Don’t Break My Heart” — which delve into the same salty subject matter that was Tesfaye’s focus on his “My Dear Melancholy” EP, although this time the consistent ‘80s styling and upbeat delivery frame them with an element of self-parody. The percussive breathing that ends “How Do I Make You Love Me” sounds at once like a frustrated gasp and a meditative commitment to purpose. The album is full of moments that quite marvelously capture the general absurdity of life in their pulsating beats and jingle singalongs. 

“A Tale By Quincy” is a rather arbitrary interlude, featuring the legendary Quincy Jones reflecting on growing up without a mother. Somehow, the radio station format of the album moderates the randomness of the inclusion, as the entire premise is already surreal. Jones’ bit segues elegantly into “Out of Time,” a smooth R&B jam with saccharine falsetto eruptions and a Michael Jackson kick that makes for lighthearted, theatrical fare. Several songs on the album are essentially anti-love songs, such as “Sacrifice,” an upbeat banger in which Tesfaye discourages a romantic partner from “catching feelings,” or the languid “Here We Go… Again,” in which Tesfaye’s angelic crooning comes in Disney stylings and leads to Tyler, the Creator’s repeated, deadpan declarations of “You gon’ sign this prenup.” Lyrics can get rather cringey, as on the particularly catchy “Best Friends,” when Tesfaye dons a sensitive voice and repeats “You don’t want to have sex as friends no more.” “Is There Someone Else?” rings with a mawkish insincerity, and things spiral to such ridiculous excesses as a track titled “I Heard You’re Married,” featuring an underwhelming verse from Lil Wayne and some full Michael Jackson explosions from Tesfaye. A standout is the interlude of “Every Angel Is Terrifying,” on which Jim Carrey returns with an onslaught of statements that strike a balance between levity and profundity, keeping everything fascinatingly ambiguous.. 

At the end of this surreal, retro excursion, we end up back with the DJ who has been at the helm all along. His final words are, “You gotta be Heaven to see Heaven / May peace be with you.” After nearly an hour of love songs, anti-love songs, and brushes with death, we’re reminded that a positive mentality tends to lead to a positive turnout. And with that mindset, we can blast “Dawn FM.” The Weeknd’s latest album is a sharp conceptual left turn, combined with a musical shift to center. It’s a consistent surge of upbeat tunes, escapist and inviting, while bizarre and provocative. With Tesfaye bearing the visible tides of time, and dancing freely to tunes that thrive off the simplicity of an earlier era, we move forward with a soundtrack and aesthetic that is appealing both in its absurdity and its immediacy. Dance on.  

Dawn FM” releases Jan. 7 on Apple Music.