The afternoon before he released his latest album, the Weeknd put out a press release in which he offered a hopeful promise for his new work: “Let the music heal us all during these dark times.” Such communitarian concern hasn’t often been his hallmark. He’s always been one of pop’s top emotional distancers, instilling the Top 40 with his brooding vision as he plays the disaffected R&B lothario — from the sepulchral sad-boy swagger of his landmark 2011 goth ‘n’ B opus House of Balloons to hits like his cocaine-malaised smash “I Can’t Feel My Face” and his no-pain-no-gain ballad “Earned It.” That trademark Weeknd feeling is all over After Hours, and whether its enveloping aloneness heals your worry and fear, or mirrors it, or amplifies it, this is a sound that can’t help but feel right in step with the way we live now.
The mood on Weeknd records tends to be a mix of sadistic, masochistic, solipsistic, passive-aggressive, and, of course, very, very sexy. This time, on an album designed to be an epic post-breakup self-autopsy — call it The Ballad of Bella Hadid — the vibe is all those things, plus a sense of genuinely felt romantic desolation. “I don’t know if I can be alone again/I don’t know if I can sleep alone again,” he sings on the album-opening “Alone Again,” over a mordantly snaking beat and grim synth whirr. The theme continues apace from there: On “Too Late,” he’s the scorched-earth guilty party lamenting a relationship ruined by his bad-boy self-indulgence, the glowering, glistening track suggesting a gilded prison. On “Hardest to Love,” a fleet, pretty Max Martin co-write with a Nineties-evoking drum ‘n’ bass feel, he’s the cold-hearted ex stamping out love’s final embers, adding a quintessentially Weeknd-ish kicker: “It’s hard to let me go,” at once self-cancelling and self-absorbed. In the run-up to the album’s release, he talked about being inspired by villains from movies, particularly the Joker (a somewhat bro-ish go-to he thankfully doesn’t spend much time following through on). He plays the role of unapologetic prick to the hilt on “Heartless.”
Musically, After Hours hits the best balance yet of the gloomy melodrama of the Weeknd’s early EPs or his 2018 release My Dear Melancholy and the pop slickness of his 2016 LP Starboy — at once lachrymose and sleek, cold but plush, like a lavishly ornamented fallout shelter. Where he once sampled goth-punk warrior priestess Siouxsie Sioux, he now sinks his teeth into an interpolation of Elton John’s “Your Song,” leveraging one of pop’s most beloved melodies for the soaring “Scared to Love”; for this guy, Elton’s openhearted passion is a means of pulling inward instead of reaching out. Martin produces the Europhile synth-pop-steeped “Blinding Lights,” evoking Depeche Mode and the Human League in its lonely-planet luster. Kevin Parker of Tame Impala and Daniel Lopatin (a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never) co-write “Repeat After Me (Interlude),” a wounded power ballad overlaid with spacey bubble-prog keyboards.
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The Weeknd met Lopatin, who also appears on two other tracks, during the filming of the Adam Sandler hit Uncut Gems: Lopatin did the score, and the Weeknd played himself, in a scene where he’s getting ready to do a show, demanding the club turn “some fuckin’ black light on this fuckin’ stage,” as the crowd joins in his complaint. It’s a perfect metaphor for his career, creating a moment of mass spectacle from an extravagant performance of what Warren Zevon once called splendid isolation.
After Hours certainly has its share of pity-partying. But there’s also a vulnerability that goes beyond the usual too-beautiful-for-the-world sulking. “I thought I’d be a better man, but I lied to you and me,” he sings on the magisterial “Faith,” one of a handful of songs produced by Metro Boomin’, referencing “Purple Rain” and “Losing My Religion,” as his floats above cold-storage synths in a sublime display of his signature feathery falsetto athleticism. That vocal finesse is all over the album, and it reminds us that Tesfaye is easily one of the most gifted singers of his generation, able to do for the forlorn cokeover what Al Green did for love and happiness.
With its title reference to drugs and his frigid hometown of Toronto, “Snowchild” has a similar stark elegance. Tesfaye returns to his autobiography, reminiscing about his rise from money-hungry wannabe to rich benefactor, “spending all my money on these niggas that I brought up/Taking care of families for my brothers that are locked up.” The narrative progresses to Coachella and Tribeca, a deal with Mercedes, a mansion he never lives in with a pool he never dips in. It’s a mix of ambition, generosity, and superstar boo-hoo, a brag that’s also a whine that’s also a hug, but sung with such elegiac grandeur that it ends up being poignant. Such moments sum up the paradoxical allure of the Weeknd’s music, and After Hours is one of the smoothest cocoons he’s spun.