The Weeknd hosts a party in purgatory on ‘Dawn FM’. Somehow, it works

January 7, 2022
The Weeknd, looking aged, for the cover of his new album, "Dawn FM."
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The Weeknd, like many of us, spent part of 2020 in a pandemic depression.

Plagued by feeling “in this limbo state,” he channeled his feelings into what he planned as his fifth studio album, the follow-up to 2020’s No. 1 “After Hours,” which sparked three polished No. 1 singles (“Save Your Tears” and “Blinding Lights” among them) and incited much Grammy Awards drama. 

But the results were too dark, too sad and, he said, “emotionally detrimental.”

So the Canadian superstar officially known as Abel Tesfaye rebooted, turning his creativity to the idea of purgatory and being stuck in gridlock in a tunnel, a light beckoning at the end to signal the transition to the other side.

But before you think that concept sounds macabre, The Weeknd enlisted the ideal ambassador to ease the journey – a soft-rock radio host (voiced by new friend Jim Carrey in amusingly affected DJ mode) to keep you company while listening to “Dawn FM.”

Yes, it’s the name of The Weeknd’s new album – the first major arrival of 2022 – but also the faux radio station that will “guide you into the light … until you’re fully engulfed,” the singer said during a virtual listening event.

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The title track spotlights Carrey assuring listeners that “we’ll be there to hold your hand and guide you through this painless transition” before Depeche Mode-esque thumps kick in with “Gasoline.”

Whisking listeners into a Euro discotheque, The Weeknd adopts a British accent to intone verses (“It’s 5 a.m., I’m high again and you can see that I’m in pain”) before his familiar honeyed vocals swoop in for the chorus (“And if I finally die in peace, just wrap my body in these sheets”). It’s the end of the world as The Weeknd knows it, and he even name drops R.E.M. for added confirmation.

Most of the 16 tracks on “Dawn FM” are stocked with glistening synthesizers that demonstrate The Weeknd’s continued affection for new wave and lite-R&B as well as his instincts for melody.

Combined with well-placed features (Lil Wayne and Tyler, The Creator), interludes from Carrey and Quincy Jones and clever radio bumpers for Dawn FM interspersed among the songs, “Dawn FM” is an all-night dance party of an album with a pulse that belies its lyrical depth.

Shades of the slithering rhythm of Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ ” color “How Do I Make You Love Me?,” while The Weeknd and co-writers Swedish House Mafia snag a funky guitar loop from Alicia Myers’ 1982 R&B track “I Want to Thank You” to anchor “Sacrifice,” which offers layered vocals and a delectable key change.

Working primarily with production wizards Max Martin and Daniel Lopatin (aka OPN), The Weeknd embraces the realities of death while still navigating the complexities of intimacy.

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By the time Carrey returns for the closing soliloquy, “Phantom Regret By Jim,” a Dr. Seuss-like rhyme that he wrote, the message is complete: “God knows life is chaos, but he made one thing true/You’ve gotta unwind your mind, train your soul to align and dance ‘til you find that divine boogaloo,” Carrey recites.

But before reaching the philosophical climax, here are some other highlights along the journey:

‘Less Than Zero’

The indisputable apex of “Dawn FM” – also dotted with Martin’s fingerprints – is thrust by a propulsive beat and decorated with keyboard notes climbing the scales before The Weeknd bursts into a chorus that literally reports, “I can’t get it out of my head.” Of course, the reference is to a romance plagued by self-destruction (“Now you’d rather leave me/Than to watch me die in your arms”), but the phenomenal hook is an instant gem.

‘Out of Time’

Following “A Tale By Quincy,” an interview clip of legendary music producer Quincy Jones telling the story of the childhood trauma of watching his mother being taken away in a straitjacket and its effect on his relationships throughout his life, “Out of Time” delves into The Weeknd’s own emotional issues. “I’ve been so cold to the ones who love me,” he sings over a glistening melody that recalls DeBarge with its smooth, retro groove.

‘Don’t Break My Heart’

Though filled with rote phrases (“Don’t let me down” and “I don’t know if I can take it anymore” comprise most of the chorus), The Weeknd’s quirky phrasing infuses even the most elementary lines with depth. The song opens with a burst of roller-skating rink, neon-lighted energy and builds its swagger on layers of synthesizers.

‘Here We Go … Again’

Bitter about being used for fame and sex, but also intrigued by the potential of something real developing from a fling (“When I make her laugh, swear it cures my depressing thoughts”), The Weeknd grapples with falling for someone he knows will break his heart. Enter Tyler, The Creator, with a verse that warns, “You gone sign this prenup.” Through his tangle of emotions, The Weeknd’s upper range is in pure, flawless form as it dances atop background vocals from Beach Boys Bruce Johnston and Christian Love (son of Mike). No, we didn’t see that coming, either. 

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