As one of pop music’s preeminent ministers of brood, Abel Tesfaye can lay claim to exerting a huge influence on the menacing tone that undergirds a large swath of contemporary R&B. And he knows it. With two multiplatinum albums in the bag, the Weeknd has largely conquered a pop landscape he once dismissed as trivial, composing pop records that hide his bleak visions in a danceable, radio-savvy trojan horse. But on his new release, My Dark Melancholy, his first release since 2016’s overly slick Starboy, he abjures uptempo glitz to delve deeper than ever into the bitterness of loss.
My Dear Melancholy, is slight, a skin-and-bones collection of six songs that use the fragility and grime of broken relationships as a jumping-off point for uncovering subtle textures in his sound. Recalling his 2012 series of early EPs, it evokes a drug-addled romp through Magic City on R&B Night – dark, high-def electro-soul. Contributions from familiar faces like longtime producers DaHeala and Cirkut as well as newer collaborators such as French electro artist Gesaffelstein hew towards murky undertones with droning drum patterns, deep vocal modulation and dizzying emotional wails.
Lyrically, the Weeknd’s melancholy takes on a striking physicality, moving beyond his tendency towards emotional numbness towards a self-disgust that verges on masochism. “I said I didn’t feel nothing baby, but I lied” he sings on the opener, “Call Out My Name,” then adds, “I almost cut a piece of myself for your life.” He’s never ventured this much of himself in his music; “Call out my name so I can be on my way, girl,” he sings later in that song, struggling to find closure. Back-to-back assists from Gesaffelstein on the pulsating “Wasted Times” and “I Was Never There” color the Weeknd’s gloom in ascendant synthy strokes. “I Was Never There’s” repetitious delivery drives home lyrics that, once again, dwell on a relationship’s visceral repercussions; “What makes a grown man cry, what makes him wanna take his life?” he offers, before exploring the ways faulty love can lead to grueling self-destruction: “You’d rather something toxic/So I poison myself again, again/Til I feel nothing.” The stakes have rarely felt higher for him.
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Perhaps contrary to his posture on previous albums, where he presented his unfeeling lust as a kind of immature frivolity, My Dear Melancholy, interestingly connects his sex and substance use to the pain of romantic sacrifice. And while there is still room for self-aggrandizing – like when he hypocritically tells a lover to “notify” him when she’s done being prideful on the Mike-Will-Made-It-scored track “Try Me” – My Dear Melancholy, surprisingly provides the clearest, most engaging example yet of the Weeknd’s angst. It’s the sound of a man kneeling at love’s altar still in search of an elusive healing.