Album Review: The Weeknd hits a new creative zenith with ‘Dawn FM’

The Weeknd’s fifth studio album is his finest yet, with his pop smash-songwriting now matching his conceptualization.

With his star still burning hotter and brighter, The Weeknd is burgeoning into one of the most influential musicians of the new decade. The then 29-year-old Abel Tesfaye began outpacing his peers with the first chapter in a then-unannounced trilogy with the album After Hours, his most commercially successful project yet. With three number one singles – including the biggest hit of all time – and a Super Bowl halftime show performance, he ascended to the throne of pop that he had been eyeing since the beginning of the last decade. With the second chapter in his new trilogy, Dawn FM, The Weeknd shifts his horizons to an ambitious audio experience that boasts not only the signature pop hits we’ve come to expect but also out-immerses the recent wave of cinematic pop albums.

While pop stars like Kacey Musgraves and Halsey have given more credence to the visual album format, and in some cases making their sound dependent on them, “103.5 Dawn FM” revisits the psychedelic world of radio and the imaginative possibilities of sound alone. As musicians release full-length visuals for their albums and TikTok tightens its grasp on the music industry, it’s refreshing to see an artist of The Weeknd’s stature reaffirm audio as his primary medium. While the visuals accompanying this album are still sharp, they’re also relatively understated when comparing the video for “Sacrifice” to the scintillating one for “Blinding Lights.” The incessant need for visuals to accompany music is a relatively nascent phenomenon, and his decision to largely sidestep them may turn up the pressure for others to follow suit.

The Weeknd sets the bar high for this type of project. The first few minutes of the album open the portal for his branded descent into darkness: “It’s 5 AM, I’m nihilist / I know therе’s nothing after this (After this)I know you won’t let me OD (Don’t you let me go). He masterfully sets the thematic tone for the project with a song that doesn’t need its surrounding tracks to be enjoyable. Drugs, love, death, and the threat of dawn all make lyrical appearances here, an assuring thesis statement for an album predicated on it. The following three tracks are all upbeat radio hits in waiting courtesy of Max Martin‘s legendary pen, with this section constituting the album’s brightest chapter.

Quincy Jones’ “tale” is a well-placed shift between its Top 40 and “easy listening” sections and an acknowledging glance at the influence of Michael Jackson on the project. The mid-tempo tracks go well, if not unremarkably sans the middling “Here We Go… Again,” which breaks the sonic consistency of the album with little warrant. The final track, “Less Than Zero,” emerges as one of The Weeknd’s best, a thrilling reminder of his ability to navigate light and dark, the sentimental and the ephemeral, with deft precision.

Making a cohesive, conceptual album requires sacrificing a degree of radio-single-readiness for the tracklist, but these competing interests are balanced well. The front portion of the album is largely inoculated from radio intermissions, allowing the lead single “Take My Breath” to blossom in its extended album mix, while “Out of Time” isn’t burdened by Jim Carey’s spoken outro. “Every Angel is Terrifying,” however, isn’t practical as a song or a conceptual add-on, and the spacing between the narrative segues is slightly lop-sided in the tracklist. But, for the price of ambition, these shortcomings are preferred over the head down, straight-ahead nature of The Weeknd’s previous projects.

It isn’t often that stars at the top of industry simultaneously release their best work, but The Weeknd’s clear-eyed gaze into the eyes of superstardom seems to have only pushed him towards greatness rather than cower in its presence. With two chapters in his undoubtedly legendary trilogy now written into history, the only question remaining is how he will raise the bar in the “afterlife.”

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