The Weeknd: After Hours review – agile blend of usual sex and self-hate

(XO Records/Republic Records/Island Records)
Abel Tesfaye is starting to show remorse for his failed relationships – but only a little bit – on this wonderfully varied yet cohesive record

When Abel Tesfaye first emerged nine years ago as the Weeknd he arrived with such an immaculately constructed sound and aesthetic that it swiftly became a creative prison. While his early blend of doleful R&B and emotionally despondent lyrics seemed fresh on 2011’s trio of influential, Drake-approved mixtapes – House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence – by his disappointing major label debut, Kiss Land, in 2013 the conceit had worn thin.

A rethink was in order. As with his 2015 commercial breakthrough, Beauty Behind the Madness – home to the lithe disco funk of Can’t Feel My Face, which offered a PG edit of the Weeknd’s lyrical tropes of unfulfilling sex and drug use – and its bloated follow-up Starboy, the new album After Hours attempts to blend the drip-fed, drug-addled mopes of yore with luminescent, Max Martin-assisted bangers your mum can sing along to.

The cover of After Hours by The Weeknd
The cover of After Hours. Photograph: PR

The agile After Hours might be his best attempt yet at fusing the two. Rather than sticking out like a sore thumb, the glorious 80s synthpop explosion of lead single Blinding Lights – No 1 in the UK for five of the last six weeks – blends in nicely with the album’s nostalgic palette of shape-shifting synth workouts, tactile minimalism and (on Too Late and Hardest to Love), splashes of drum’n’bass and UK garage. Just as those early mixtapes were buffeted by blog-friendly samples from the likes of Beach House and Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Phil Collins-esque ballad Scared to Live soars over a hilarious sample from Elton John’s Your Song, while new single In Your Eyes struts around a refreshingly uncool sax solo.

Lyrically, he ventures into new territory too, albeit briefly. The album opens with a suite of songs that show a scintilla of remorse for failed relationships that never seemed to make it beyond the bedroom. On the widescreen expanse of the excellent Faith he croons, “thought I’d be a better man but I lied to me and you” in his best choirboy voice. The featherlight, Limahl-esque Save Your Tears, meanwhile, offers up a hint of self-reflection. Even when he’s apologising or looking for reconciliation, however, it’s always to serve him and him alone. “Where are you now when I need you most?” he mopes on the title track, while on slow-burn opener Alone Again you can imagine him padding mournfully around his apartment as he sighs: “I don’t know if I can be alone again.” Unfortunately, this being a Weeknd album, there are still moments of misogyny, specifically on the bloated Heartless, which seems like self-parody, and the risible, nearly six-minute epic Escape from LA, in which he details having very boring-sounding sex in a studio with women who have all had the “same work done on their face”. Not that he has a problem with that. “I don’t criticise,” he adds, leaving a pause to give himself a pat on the back.

What connects After Hours so successfully to his early mixtapes is a sense of narrative cohesion, something the Weeknd seemed to value above all else when he started out. Here songs bleed into each other, with sonic references dotted throughout to neaten up threads that previously he would have left to unravel. By balancing the two sides of his musical personality – not to mention add some levity to that boring, bad-taste id – After Hours feels like the first Weeknd album in a while to offer up a clear, singular vision rather than something frustratingly abstract.


Michael Cragg

The GuardianTramp

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