While Echoes of Silence shows flashes of excellence, Tesfaye is caught looking backward and forward at the same time.
Echoes of Silence is the Weeknd’s third release in the last year. A project of Canadian-Ethiopian singer Abel Tesfaye, the Weeknd has maintained a steady trajectory in his releases. The first, House of Balloons, startlingly used R&B to explore not love and longing, but hostility, depravity and disregard. Tesfaye’s threatening vocals were combined with industrial clatters, menacing synths, and excruciating guitars. The second, Thursday, expanded Tesfaye’s sonic palette, including the reggae tinges of “Heaven Or Las Vegas” and the gorgeous “Rolling Stone", which featured only Tesfaye and acoustic guitar. These tracks diluted the startling thematic unity of his first record by introducing softer sounds. Now comes Echoes of Silence, which continues to expand the Weeknd’s range. While several songs are still rooted in the anomie and destruction of Tesfaye’s initial output, he is beginning to embrace more mainstream forms of R&B. The earlier aggressive sound has now been significantly toned down in favor of less threatening noises. While Echoes of Silence shows flashes of excellence, Tesfaye is caught like the Greek god Janus, looking backward and forward at the same time -- while one side of him looks towards pop, the other harks back towards his previous mix of scary themes and sneakily catchy tunes.
The Weeknd’s signature sounds are most evident in the middle of the album: the fourth track, “XO/The Host", showcases a trademark Weeknd technique, two songs mashed into one without any transition or pause. While each half conveys a different instrumental feel the whole maintains the sense that Weeknd’s world is overwhelmingly, inescapably gloomy. The first part of the track is weirdly bouncy as it describes a girl ready to do a lot of things in search of drugs. A malicious guitar bursts behind the “XO” sung on the chorus and the song ends with a fading moan. The “Host” starts “I need... ", and trails off before Tesfaye returns to sing “I need, something from you.” As we know from previous experience, when Tesfaye is in need, bad things happen to him and people around him. The rest of “The Host” slides along on anguished yelps and ominous synth pulses.
The next song, “Initiation", should give every listener the creeps. Tesfaye uses some sort of vocal modulation to switch between his own voice, a higher voice that sounds kind of like Prince in his Camille phase, and vocals that sound like a hollowed out mask-wearing Cillian Murphy in Batman Begins (echoing an effect he used to add gravity to the phrase “Nightmare on Elm St.” off “Glass Table Girls” from his first album). The lyrics are scary as he warns a girl “no more crying… you don’t want to die tonight”, a threat emphasized by the instrumentation, where eerie and siren-like sounds drift behind dark chords. As the song speeds up Tesfaye starts to sound more seductive -- “ride it out… work that… till you’re tired out” -- but then he switches into his monster voice, transforming the seduction into something twisted and dangerous. Despite his scary voice and the horrifying activities, the song is weirdly compelling, a train wreck you can’t look away from.
However, Tesfaye noticeably does look away from the warped train wreck tracks at several points on this album. Several of his lyrics would fit in with the oft-gloomy outlook of singers like Frank Ocean (on his hit “Novacane”) and Drake (something like “The Ride”), who delve into melancholy introspection and lack of feeling, but do not reach the depths that Tesfaye has explored. An increasingly important tenet of R&B these days is lack of real human connection and the failure of sex and drugs to elicit feelings of pleasure. The Weeknd has captured this sentiment before, but he explores it here in a calmer setting. Two tracks from Echoes of Silence, “Same Old Song” and “Next", explore these issues with smoother instrumentation and less unsettling lyrics. As the title suggests, “Same Old Song” explores a standard theme in hip-hop and R&B -- girls didn’t like the singer until he was popular. Tesfaye does fine with this old complaint, but it is kind of boring for him -- and for us. A steady bass creeps, but there is little menace to this tune. Another song on the album, “Next", is the partner of “Same Old Song": “Baby I want you… who you trying to fool? You just want me cause I’m next.” It’s sad, but it’s not scary. There is no sonic mire and no synths bleeping warnings.
Similarly, the heartrending title track contains only Tesfaye, a keyboard, and some strings; tragedy fills his quavering voice, but fairly conventional tragedy, stemming from a relationship falling apart. His lover says “… Nothing’s going to make me feel this real” and someone says “I don’t want to spend tonight alone” -- both these sentiments also echo recent songs by Ocean (again, “Novacane”) and Drake (“Hate Sleepin’ Alone”). "Montreal", another of the more explicitly pop-oriented songs, displays a startling amount of harmlessness for the Weeknd as he directly addresses a lover. This is impressive because it is not often in his music that Tesfaye seems capable of (or interested in) anything resembling love. But Tesfaye’s tales of creepy lust are more moving than “Montreal", which doesn’t have a lot of character.
The best song on the album comes first as Tesfaye starts with a Michael Jackson cover (“D.D.”), taking MJ’s “Dirty Diana” (Off Bad) and dragging it through the sludge, pumping up the mechanized blurt. It’s amazing how similar MJ and Tesfaye’s vocals are when Tesfaye’s plies his trade on a poppier tune. While it’s hard to imagine Tesfaye singing something like “This Girl Is Mine", this cover shows a way forward for Tesfaye, a way for him to move into pop territory without sacrificing what brought him attention in the first place -- unmitigated depression, threat to himself and others, lack of pleasure. Tracks like “Montreal” or “Same Old Song” aren’t bad, but they don’t set the Weeknd apart. “D.D.” on the other hand hits with propulsion. It’s murky, chilling, and tantalizing.
Echoes of Silence doesn't contain an original tour de force like “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls or “Coming Down", and it's not as unified thematically as his previous work. On “Next", Tesfaye says he’s 21, on “Loft Music", from House of Balloons, he noted that he’s 20 -- maybe his wild days are behind him now. Hopefully that doesn’t mean the excitement and unpredictability in his music will fade. But importantly, Echoes of Silence shows that Abel Tesfaye continues to evolve, and it offers a glimpse of potentially exciting future.