From the acclaimed 2011 mixtape House of Balloons, the Weeknd emerged, fueled by the strength of orotund club bass and full-throated existential ruin. Sure, he dropped ridiculous lines like, “Got the walls kicking like they six months pregnant,” but his ability to toe the line between ecstasy and despair, between knowing the ultimate emptiness of pleasure while still being unable to avoid succumbing to it, made for compelling aural drama. The three mixtapes that comprise his debut Trilogy – House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence, all 2011 – represent an audacious debut, one that began cloaked in anonymity. Before the Trilogy took off, the Weeknd was just the Weeknd, an online enigma sharing sad songs. Early media attention and some celebrity fans such as Drake led to the unveiling of the Weeknd as the Canadian artist Abel Tesfaye. Since then Tesfaye’s star has only grown brighter, even as his music documents the life of someone always on the edge of burning out.
For fans of the Weeknd there is a core question: does the Trilogy offer the truest representation of his style, or did he manage to successfully cross over into pop success while retaining those key sonic elements of the early mixtapes? The romanticizing of the Trilogy smacks of an “I knew him when” mentality to an extent, but Tesfaye does sound more creatively unfettered in his mixtape years than he does backed by major pop producers like Daft Punk. He could never conquer the top 100 with a strip club ballad as direct and mournful as “Wicked Games”; only the palatable but still unsubtle euphemism at the heart of the chorus of “Can’t Feel My Face” could convince casual listeners to bop their heads along. Still, the comparisons to Michael Jackson that Tesfaye earned for his elastic high-range voice were accurate not just on the grounds of similarity, but also in pop potential. With Kiss Land Tesfaye tentatively toed into the mainstream, but on 2015’s Beauty Behind the Madness he plunged in headfirst, resulting in what remains his strongest effort to date.
Although not billed as such, Beauty Behind the Madness fits the bill of a concept album, centered on the two poles of the Weeknd’s lyrical ethos: wanting more, but being unable to escape the excesses of consumption. The first half of the album depicts Tesfaye at his most confident: “We did it all alone / Now we’re coming for the throne!” he chants on early highlight “Losers”. Loneliness hovers over these songs, ushered in with the quasi-Broadway anthem “Real Life”, in which Tesfaye confesses, “Heaven only lets a few in / It’s too late for me to choose it / Don’t waste precious tears on me, I’m not worth the misery / Better off when I’m alone.” Up until the climactic “Can’t Feel My Face”, still one of the finest pop songs of this decade, Tesfaye battles back the isolation he knows he’s digging himself into with increasingly futile bravado: “Baby I can make that pussy rain,” he crudely brags on “Often”, despite the icy, solitary soundscapes behind him. Not long after the bubblegum rush of “Can’t Feel My Face”, Tesfaye realizes that drugs and casual sex can’t give him what he wants. It’s at this point that Beauty Behind the Madness shifts lyrically, turning toward songs about the pursuit of earnest love.
Now, because this is the Weeknd, this turn toward meaningful romance can’t help but be ridiculous. “We can sex all night!” Tesfaye cries halfway through the otherwise pretty “As You Are”. By the time Trilogy reaches its bleak conclusion with the gorgeous Echoes of Silence, the thought of the persona Tesfaye sings through achieving redemption seems a far-flung goal. But as Beauty Behind the Madness concludes with the cautiously optimistic “Angel”, it appears that, for a moment at least, Tesfaye sees the light at the end of the tunnel. “Even though I sin, maybe we are born to live,” he sings, “But I know time will tell if we’re meant for this / Yeah, if we’re meant for this.” Just the base acknowledgment that life is worth living and there is more to it than the unfiltered hedonism explored in most of the Weeknd’s music feels like a triumph, even as it’s presented in saccharine ballad form. In the context of the Weeknd’s frigid moral universe, such an admission might as well be transcendence.
2016’s Starboy one-upped the pop experimentation of Beauty Behind the Madness, but did so at the expense of its predecessor’s narrative feats. Spanning 18 songs that collectively run over an hour, Starboy contains nary a hint of narrative continuity. The album adopts the “let’s see how many singles we can milk out of this thing” approach, making it the Weeknd’s equivalent of an early Beatles LP to Beauty Behind the Madness‘ Sgt. Pepper‘s. Some of the singles do stand up to Tesfaye’s best: the Daft Punk collaborations “Starboy” and “I Feel It Coming” are solid earworms, and album cuts like “A Lonely Night” and “Sidewalks” successfully streamline the Weeknd’s aesthetic into the form of a four-minute pop song.
But 18 songs is long for a prog rock concept album, let alone a pop R&B major label release, and in the end Starboy more than outstays its welcome. Its primary directive seems to be proving that the Weeknd can thrive in the pop arena, which the megahit singles of Beauty Behind the Madness (“Can’t Feel My Face”, “The Hills”, “Earned It”) aptly demonstrate. That redundancy, combined with some of Tesfaye’s worst lyrics to date (“I just won a new award for a kids show / Talking ’bout a face-numbing off a bag of blow / I’m like, goddamn bitch, I am not a Teen Choice”), makes Starboy feel like a cheap cash-grab capitalizing on an artistically and commercially successful LP like Beauty Behind the Madness.
How, then, could Tesfaye follow up Starboy? Those following Tesfaye’s career were given little time to anticipate, as on 29 March announcements of a new album began proliferating over social media, and in the late hours of that day My Dear Melancholy was released. Upon being made available to the world, the “album” was revealed to be an EP, consisting of six songs that barely crack 20 minutes. If this is a standalone EP or perhaps one part of an eventual LP – much like John Mayer’s The Search for Everything (2015), which was released in a series of four-song EPS – remains to be seen. Certainly, the comma at the end of My Dear Melancholy suggests an incomplete thought.
The enigmatic black-and-red color scheme of the sleeve art hearkens back to the Trilogy days, which is not a coincidence: the music does too. The dramatic opener “Call Out My Name” would have fit snugly in with the Echoes of Silence tunes, and the rest of the LP is drenched in the opiate sheen that defines Trilogy. Visually and aurally, My Dear Melancholy feels like a reset to the mixtape days. Tesfaye’s pristine vocals remain as pop-friendly as they were on Beauty Behind the Madness and Starboy, but the music centers on the echoey, grim sounds of the Weeknd’s formative years. The “we knew him when” crowd will be pleased.
“Call Out My Name” kicks off the EP with the same yearnings that cap off Beauty Behind the Madness: “I want you to stay even though you don’t want me / Girl why can’t you wait? / Girl why can’t you wait ’til I fall out of love?” As always, the tension of the Weeknd is found at the intersection of desire and despair; the themes of My Dear Melancholy offer little new to the Weeknd’s lyrical or sonic pursuits. “Call Out My Name” signals this fact, and the remaining five songs do little to dispute it. The music does at times reach the heights of Trilogy: the main lick of “Try Me” and the excellent beat on “Hurt You” reveal flickers of creative flame in Tesfaye’s songwriting. Yet the primary impression left by My Dear Melancholy is that however visible those flames, their faintness is what sticks in the memory. The EP ends on a limp note with the instrumental meandering in the last minute of “Privilege”, contributing to the image of a creative well running dry at a quicker pace than Tesfaye might be able to notice.
Like Starboy, lyrics prove to be My Dear Melancholy‘s weak spot, albeit more due to reasons of repetitive themes rather than clumsy wordplay. The narrative arc in Beauty Behind the Madness — recognizing the emptiness of a pleasure-seeking lifestyle while also feeling too far gone to be changed – can only really work once. Anyone is susceptible to becoming enthralled in the excesses of ecstasy, but after awhile resigning oneself to doom becomes passing off the buck. This cuts to the heart of what Miles Klee calls the “I’m a piece of shit defense”, in which someone (typically if not predominantly a man) acknowledges their personal and moral failings as a way of staving off accountability for their actions. As Klee puts it,
How often have men, confronted by partners for a failure to meet the simplest of interpersonal expectations, thrown their hands up and been like, “You’re right, I suck, I’m garbage, bye.” It’s easier to act like a victim of their personality and vanish than to correct course or, god forbid, accept some help. Inward criticism is a kind of armor; it preempts outside analysis with a haughty question: “You think I don’t realize that?”
So it is for the Weeknd. By now, we know that the Weeknd is caught up in casual sex, in consumption, in the thrill that comes from an altered state of mind. No matter how beautifully he can compose a song on the subject, he will eventually hit the point of diminishing returns. My Dear Melancholy feels exactly like him arriving at this point. Up to a point, the persona Tesfaye inhabits as the Weeknd can feel not like someone who treats women as casual conquests, but rather as unwitting participants in an addictive and ultimately destructive lifestyle. But after so many albums, the character central to the Weeknd’s music becomes solely culpable for his (self-)destructive habits. At some point, beauty gives way to madness.
Should any other music quickly follow My Dear Melancholy it will have a lot of heavy lifting to do. If this truly is a part of a whole, it’s hard to imagine what about-face any new music could pull to make this EP seem like anything other than a retread of Trilogy. Those mixtapes still hold up, but Tesfaye kids himself if he thinks that they can be so simply revisited after all that he’s achieved on the Billboard charts. “Can’t Feel My Face” made the Weeknd a pop star, and from that, there’s no coming back.
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road.” Going pop wasn’t a wrong turn for Tesfaye, but those yearning for the days of Trilogy are right to suggest that Starboy and its ilk aren’t worth repeating. Thinking that the old magic can be captured, however, is equally a foolish supposition. We already know that melancholy is dear to the Weeknd; his sound would be nothing without it. For now, My Dear Melancholy exposes two problematic paths for the Weeknd’s music, and it is anyone’s guess where he will go next.