With new album Dawn FM, The Weeknd muses on love, heartbreak, and betrayal with a host of collaborators
One can argue that 2022 has already seen the first addition to those end-of-year lists we will see in December – The Weeknd’s excellent full-length record Dawn FM.
In 2022, an album – especially in the always fast-moving world of pop music – is an artistic statement at best. Where singles have always held their ground through streaming platforms, their editorial playlists (and a little help from the old hand that is radio airplay), a definitive pop album is one that often uses the idea of a journey as a key thematic device.
Some of the greatest pop albums are often concept-driven, even if it is all loosely tied together and left to the listener’s imagination. Recent groundbreaking albums include Beyonce’s Lemonade, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange or even Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories.
We are in January 2022 so if you need any indication of what is lauded as a great album right now in the music world, the Best of the Year lists are not yet out of public consciousness. Everything from Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour to Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever, and of course, Adele’s top-selling return album 30 were all widely regarded as definitive artist statements made through songs that move between sonic styles, staying close to a signature sound while also digging into an openhearted clever style.
It is time to go ahead and argue that 2022 has already seen the first addition to those end-of-year lists we will see in December – The Weeknd’s excellent full-length record Dawn FM. When the Canadian artist dropped his Daft Punk-assisted album Starboy in 2016, followed up with a smash hit like ‘Blinding Lights,’ and subsequently his album After Hours in 2020, a new era of Abel Tesfaye aka The Weeknd was born (not to forget the meme-worthy moment that came with its promotion).
On Dawn FM, Daft Punk (who called it a day last year) are somewhat missed, but Weeknd’s still got his main man – Swedish super-producer Max Martin. And no pop star working on an opus would stop there. Carrying forward their creative streak from After Hours, producer Oneohtrix Point Never aka Daniel Lopatin has his fingerprints throughout Dawn FM. EDM giants like Swedish House Mafia join the fun on ‘How Do I Make You Love Me?,’ and Calvin Harris is co-producer on ‘I Heard You’re Married,’ which also features fave rapper Lil Wayne bring his slinky Auto-Tune, confrontational flow.
Across 16 songs and 52 minutes, the surprising guide along this transmission of Dawn FM is actor Jim Carrey.
Enlisted by The Weeknd after they reportedly bonded over telescopes starting in 2020, Carrey is that inimitable, smooth, radio-friendly voice of the DJ imparting advice as well as wisdom at different points between the music. It makes for a gripping, ominous thematic thread, coming in when you least expect it.
Carrey’s spoken-word bit is comforting, and at other times (the album’s closing track ‘Phantom Regret by Jim’), hits hard with introspection, while also featuring clever references, like the nod to Prince’s 'Purple Rain.' The Weeknd’s music and artistic statement exists in the wide space in between, as he kicks off in sublime fashion with ‘Gasoline,’ which is co-produced by Lopatin. Near-immaculate in its production, this one will have audiophiles jump with glee about the potential of Dawn FM.
Dreams of synth-pop and disco populate songs like ‘How Do I Make You Love Me’ and ‘Take My Breath,’ which gallop along in grooves that would make Michael Jackson proud. There is a digitised funk riff that is the backbone of ‘Sacrifice,’ also produced by Swedish House Mafia. The EDM trio, who reunited in 2018 and began releasing music from their upcoming album Paradise Again in 2021, had previously invited The Weeknd for their track ‘Moth To a Flame.’
There are themes of love, betrayal, and insecurity across Dawn FM, and it is even given voice by legendary producer Quincy Jones on ‘A Tale By Quincy,’ which in turn inspires the seductively paced, ‘80s nostalgia-driven pop song 'Out of Time.'
At this point, Dawn FM veers into a different path. ‘Here We Go… Again’ is wholly modern with lyrics referencing the Superbowl and an eyebrow-raising confession that the Weeknd’s “new girl, she a movie star.” The no-nonsense rap of Tyler, The Creator cuts through the seemingly freeform, beat-less delivery of The Weeknd, and we figure out that it is building up to the next set of songs. ‘Best Friends’ delves on the trappings of the friends-with-benefits situation, while ‘Is There Someone Else?’ brings an indefatigable bassline as the artist tears himself apart with questions.
The Weeknd grapples with an intense kind of love (‘Starry Eyes’) before arriving at the realisation that ‘Every Angel is Terrifying,’ whose fizzling synths signal chaos, catharsis, and even dystopia. The advertisement-style packaging jolt the listener out of whatever they were expecting (probably a song, obviously), but then we get exactly just that – the pleading lovesick ‘Don’t Break My Heart’ might be employing the same old lyrical style but hearing the Weeknd treatment over it gives us hope.
He elevates this plea to a bittersweet realisation on ‘Less Than Zero,’ arguably saving one of his best songs for last. It is bright, drenched in reverb, and sums up a hope-against-hope love in an emphatic way, signaling that The Weeknd does not really want us to dread this whole journey. We might think of our mortality and heartbreak, but ‘Phantom Regret by Jim’ asks to pause on a moment in the pandemic to self-reflect. It contains invaluable epiphanies like “Consider the flowers, they don't try to look right/They just open their petals and turn to the light” and “You gotta be Heaven to see Heaven/May peace be with you.” It is a tender moment to close an incredible journey of sound, which is exactly what you want to hear. The Weeknd shows the world once again how to make an album on Dawn FM. Tune in.
Listen to Dawn FM here.
Anurag Tagat is a Bengaluru-based independent music journalist, covering artists nationwide and around the globe. He is also an assistant editor at Rolling Stone India.
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