Dawn FM is the Dom Pérignon of male manipulator music – a slick of negging and neediness, sleaze and sanctimony that carries the unnatural, alluring glow of toxic waste. Released without fanfare in the first week of the year and still as luridly spectacular 11 months later, the Weeknd’s fifth album – eighth if you count his superlative and still-astounding 2011 mixtape trilogy – is also his most dazzlingly deranged, and a high watermark for any star seeking to inflict their own vision on mainstream, stadium-primed pop music.
Dawn FM serves as the midway point in a trilogy of concept albums that began with 2020’s After Hours, and which will supposedly end with an album about the afterlife. But it also feels like a direct reaction to After Hours’ success. That record allowed Abel Tesfaye to showcase some of his most nakedly transgressive art for increasingly huge audiences. In its music videos, he depicted himself battered and bruised, his teeth caked with blood; he attended awards ceremonies in full facial bandages and occasionally appeared in caricaturish prosthetics. The aesthetic leaned obscurist, drawing liberally from the relatively obscure 80s Scorsese comedy After Hours and the suffocating atmospherics of cult synth-pop band Chromatics.
And yet After Hours was a colossal hit. It produced two of the Weeknd’s most commercially successful singles (Blinding Lights, one of the biggest songs of all time, and Save Your Tears) and he ended that album cycle headlining the Super Bowl halftime show, broadcasting a disorienting, somewhat disturbing vision to more than 90 million people: hundreds of eerie Weeknd clones, all dressed in Tesfaye’s bloodied facial bandages, frantically careening through mirrored halls during a hit that likens romance to cocaine addiction and doing eerie military marches to a Siouxsie and the Banshees sample. Tesfaye had taken his populist nihilism to the largest stage possible – with little sense of compromise.
So once you’ve conquered the mortal pop world, naturally, it’s time to conquer death itself. Dawn FM is a concept album about Tesfaye’s Weeknd character – a misanthropic, sometimes outright misogynistic, cocaine-addled, depressive loner – transiting through purgatory. Dawn FM is the radio station you’re listening to on the journey: a hallucinatory vortex of disco, R&B, electro, EDM and hip-hop that’s shimmery and strange, taking on new dimensions the longer you listen. Jim Carrey narrates the whole thing, and Quincy Jones and Josh Safdie dip in for spoken-word interludes; at one point, Tesfaye recites Rilke. The music is gorgeous and grand, but the concept is, to put it plainly, bonked – the kind of dense, deliriously conceived framework that you can only pull off if you’ve spent the previous decade doing some of pop music’s most meticulous, coherent worldbuilding.
True to the radio conceit, Dawn FM is structured like a mix, one song fading into another. But it’s also one of the most varied Weeknd albums, and the one with the most depth and texture. Take My Breath, an orgiastic six-minute disco pounder about erotic asphyxiation, evokes Cerrone’s Supernature with its vacillating guitar lines and ominous synth hum. The serene R&B ballad Out of Time finds Tesfaye wishing he had been more loving before death, the dank sentiment of his lyrics an indelible smear on the perversely sweet easy-listening production. Best Friends and Is There Someone Else? augment the anvil-heavy bass stabs of early Weeknd tracks with the patina of 80s freestyle. Tesfaye and his co-executive producer, avant-garde synth maestro Oneohtrix Point Never, AKA Daniel Lopatin, grace every note with a curious haze: the buzz of old technology, the warmth and wobble of synths streamed in from another psychic plane. Tesfaye and Lopatin clearly share an unlikely sensibility – Lopatin’s work here returns the favour after Tesfaye executive-produced the most recent OPN album, 2020’s Magic Oneohtrix Point Never – and Dawn FM suggests that more megawatt popstars should be seeking out their local experimental sound artist for a collab.
As much as Dawn FM is a technical achievement – as textural and referential as Beyoncé’s similarly exacting Renaissance – it’s also the most compelling step forward Tesfaye’s Weeknd character has taken since his 2011 trilogy of mixtapes. Where he was once purely nihilistic and mean – and funnily, endearingly so – here he shows flashes of regret. It’s an intriguing plot twist that sets longtime listeners up for a gut-wrenching finale: Less Than Zero, a song suggesting that, even in death, true remorse is hard to come by.
Sparkling and suffocatingly sad, it’s a paean to the idea that we’re all fixed in our ways, even till the bitter end. Ironically, Dawn FM suggests that the Weeknd, once known for his bloody-minded pursuit of one ultra-specific vibe, has far more to him than meets the eye; it confirms his status as one of our greatest living stars, an auteur with inspiration and idiosyncrasy to burn. If this is purgatory, bring on the afterlife.