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Album review: The Weeknd finds funk in the afterlife on "Dawn FM"

The Weeknd photographed by Brian Ziff for Rolling Stones.

Abel Tesfaye has always been a chameleon of sorts, constantly assuming different musical personalities and reinventing himself with every new release as he’s climbed to the top of the pop totem pole.

Tesfaye, better known by his stage name “The Weeknd,” has put out some of the better pop albums of the past decade after shifting away from his early R&B style, ranging from his 2016 adrenaline-fueled party record “Starboy” to 2020’s alarmingly dark tale of self-destruction and heartbreak “After Hours.” Now, The Weeknd enters his newest era with his fifth studio album “Dawn FM,” a collection of shimmery synth-pop tracks in which the singer guides listeners into the afterlife with his very own radio station and some of his most addictive melodies to date.

If Tesfaye was a party monster struck by fame on “Starboy” and a broken drug abuser on “After Hours,” on “Dawn FM” his newest role is a more spiritual one. Here, the after-hours of the night are over, and Tesfaye’s making his way through a sort of purgatory while glimmers of light mark the dawn and what lies beyond. Tesfaye’s matured since “After Hours,” and while the singer’s still grappling with concepts of addiction and failed romances, he’s realizing and accepting his own mistakes; only now, he faces a different challenge: the beautiful yet terrifying journey towards life after death.

“This part I do alone / I’ll take my lead on this road” sings The Weeknd on “Dawn FM”’s opening title track, moving along a path of healing and self-reflection that only he can follow. Tesfaye’s making plenty of stops on his trip to the afterlife, though, and the first is “Gasoline.” Singing in an unfamiliar albeit welcomed lower register, Tesfaye recognizes his trademark nihilism is probably poisoning his current relationship, but he sees his lover as a remedy for his bad habits to some degree (“I know you won’t let me OD”).

Like he did on “Gasoline,” The Weeknd spends much of “Dawn FM” weighing the pros and cons of his more hedonistic lifestyles and how his choices have affected his past relationships.

“Sacrifice”—the album’s best track—is an infectious Max Martin and Swedish House Mafia-produced dance song ripped straight from the 80s. Don’t be fooled by the groove, though, as “Sacrifice” isn’t necessarily Tesfaye making the best case for himself. In the track, the singer is content with being on his own and not wanting to give up certain aspects of his life to make a significant other happy (“I sacrificed / Your love for more of the night / I try to put up a fight / Can’t tie me down”). Maybe it’s just naivety, or maybe The Weeknd’s genuinely tired of others wanting to fix him—either way, at least he’s self-aware.

The cover art for The Weeknd's album "Dawn FM."

But as the tracklist progresses and Tesfaye gets closer to the afterlife, the singer shifts his perspective on past relationships. Tracks like the booming “Best Friends” and the Lil Wayne-assisted “I Heard You’re Married” see The Weeknd prioritizing his feelings and making more mature choices than in the past. The former centers around Tesfaye trying to reset the terms of a “friends with benefits” agreement gone wrong, while the singer ends a relationship after discovering his lover is married in the latter track.

The afterlife drives a hard bargain on “Dawn FM” thanks to narration from legendary actor Jim Carrey, who serves as the host of the album’s in-universe, aptly-named radio station 103.5 Dawn FM. Carrey’s interludes add some context to the album’s concepts, most notably on the final track “Phantom Regret,” where Carrey recites a poem about leaving purgatory and ascending to the afterworld. “Heaven’s for those who let go of regret, and you have to wait here when you’re not all there yet,” Carrey says, but by the end of the poem he shows us how we can get there (“You gotta unwind your mind, train your soul to align, and dance ‘til you find that divine boogaloo). Solid advice.

“Dawn FM” might lull in its middle, but it ends on a high note (the glittery “Less Than Zero” is easily one of The Weeknd’s best pop tracks) and is a worthy sequel to “After Hours.” The record only further proves Tesfaye’s commitment to building worlds around even the bleakest concepts—who else could find funk while traveling to the afterlife? If “Dawn FM” is the second album in a new trilogy from The Weeknd, one might wonder how the singer will wrap things up. After all, it’s always darkest before the dawn, and if this newest record is any indication, fans might be in store for Tesfaye’s brightest album yet.


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