The Weeknd’s dreamy new album Dawn FM is the Grammy Awards' worst nightmare.
With the Canadian pop star continuing to boycott the competition, the 2023 ceremony is set to run again without arguably one of the year’s best releases in contention.
It was at last year's Grammy's that The Weeknd’s critically lauded album After Hours sensationally received no nominations.
Not only did this spur the artist’s walkout from the competition, but it led to a raft of new changes from the Grammys' committee resulting in a more representative awards field.
Hopefully there is time for a truce, because while Dawn FM is not a guaranteed shoe-in for Grammys domination, it is destined to be a major music talking point of 2022.
The big sequel
The Weeknd’s fifth album is both a sonic and thematic follow-up to After Hours.
It also has him riding the cinematic and retro synth-pop sounds first explored in 2016’s Star Boy to its zenith.
This is immortalised by the A-list personnel behind the new project, from Swedish pop maestro Max Martin and EDM trio Swedish House Mafia to US producer and film composer Daniel Lopatin, who goes by Oneohtrix Point Never, or OPN.
Dawn FM is presented as a mysterious radio station to be listened to amid gridlocked traffic.
The host is none other than actor and fellow Canuck Jim Carrey, whose somewhat anguished pleas to “accept your fate with open arms” echoes some of the fraught insecurities of his character in the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
While these interjections and fake commercials ultimately sound gimmicky, they don’t take away from the appeal of the 16 tracks, a near half-half mix of shuddering neon-lit club stompers and exquisite balladry recalling Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall era – indeed, that album’s producer, Quincy Jones, appears on Dawn FM for a spoken-word interlude about relationship failures.
From synth-pop to robo-funk
While we are familiar with the chart-conquering single Take My Breath, the album has more chart firepower in store with How Do I Make You Love Me? and Sacrifice.
The former is the kind of burbling synth-pop bliss reminiscent of the 1980s heyday of Depeche Mode, while Sacrifice is anchored by a buoyant funk guitar loop guaranteed to keep dance floors heaving.
Dawn FM also benefits from OPN’s growing involvement in The Weeknd’s work.
After first collaborating on three of After Hours's tracks, the producer, who has worked with English experimental pop artist FKA Twigs and composed the score for the Adam Sandler film Uncut Gems, lends his abstract and cinematic sensibilities to a lion’s share of Dawn FM.
The best of which is Gasoline, an ethereal disco jam where the cold robotic beats are matched by The Weeknd singing in a vague British staccato resembling David Byrne from The Talking Heads.
The trouble with happiness
While production is impressive overall, it is the overarching lyrical narrative fans will really soak up.
Where After Hours had the singer applying the blowtorch to himself and admitting to the faults and hurts caused by his "King of Toxic Romance" status, Dawn FM is about the wisdom that comes with that acceptance.
It’s the kind of self-knowledge only maturity can achieve, something alluded to with the greying image of the singer on the album cover.
In the sensitive ballad Out of Time, The Weeknd reflects on the lessons learnt from a doomed relationship: "The last few months, I've been working on me, baby. There's so much trauma in my life," he croons.
"I regret I didn't tell you. Now I can't keep you from loving him. You made up your mind."
It is a line of thinking followed through in the equally lush Starry Eyes, where he seizes the initiative: “Let me love you like you need and I'll make it my responsibility. I'll be there every step of the way.”
Then again, with The Weeknd, happiness is a relative concept.
The emotional tension coursing throughout his career comes from that eternal strive for contentment and the existential fear of its loss once attained.
It is summed up in Dawn FM’s closing number Less than Zero. Its sheer melodic euphoria is undercut by The Weeknd’s agitation by what these positive vibes mean.
“I can't shake this feeling that crawls in my bed, I try to hide it,” he says in the final verse.
“But I know you know me, I try to fight it, but I'd rather be free.”
Where After Hours was the first great quarantine pop album, Dawn FM is the soundtrack of a troubled artist and world slowly finding their feet again.