His epic breakup album feels right for our cold, lonely times
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.”
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