Arts, Music, Review

The Weeknd Falls Victim to Old Habits on ‘After Hours’

“Take off my disguise” is the first line that The Weeknd sings on his latest album, After Hours. It’s an ironic request, considering how little Abel Tesfaye, more commonly known by his stage name The Weeknd, really reveals on this project. After a rough breakup with supermodel Bella Hadid, Tesfaye is back with the same story he’s always sold, one of dead-eyed hedonism and ever-present demons. Except now, on After Hours, listeners can enjoy the heady clash between this clichéd origin story and Tesfaye’s regrettable platitudes about lost love and regret and all that. Over the course of 14 bloated songs, he warbles, he whines, he gets lost in wave after wave of overblown synth melodrama, but strip away all the grandeur and you’re left with little in the way of real substance. 

Opener “Alone Again” might as well serve as a diagram of all the ways Tesfaye goes wrong over the course of the album. His mumbly delivery is barely intelligible—not a huge loss, the lyrics are almost embarrassingly self-serious. It might be too much to ask Tesfaye to lighten up a bit, but can he at least steer clear of lines that could be sourced from a 2010s emo pop song? Watery arpeggios and aggressive shots of buzzy synths would be effective if they were administered in smaller doses. But on “Alone Again,” Tesfaye ends up engulfed by what should be background noise.

This seems to be a common theme throughout the album. It’s true that hazy soundscapes have always been Tesfaye’s realm of choice. More than that, his signature gloomy alt-trap production is what makes Tesfaye The Weeknd. But on After Hours, his production has gone rogue, upstaging Tesfaye himself. It’s as if the producers, in search of maximum impact, opted to turn every possible dial on the soundboard all the way up and call it a day. 

At several points, though, Tesfaye is able to cut back the overgrowth and achieve some clarity. If other tracks borrow ’80s elements in moderation, “Scared To Live” practically transports listeners to a tinsel-heavy 1980s prom. A punched-up drum beat punctuates Tesfaye’s version of an old-school ballad, which has the commercial potential it’s looking for, but not much in the way of creativity. The song crescendoes and mellows down at all the right places. It’s catchy—take it from Elton John and Bernie Taupin. The post-chorus incorporates a snippet from the chorus of “Your Song.” But unfortunately, “Scared To Live” is no match for the latter.

The zippy “Heartless,” one of the three lead singles from After Hours, injects a much-needed dose of energy into the album. Tesfaye tosses off boast after witty boast as a nimble trap beat skitters beneath him. He finds himself swimming in angst in the bridge before the mask quickly comes on again.

Tesfaye is at his most interesting when he roots his apathy in something tangible. His lyrics often fall flat because they paint in broad strokes. While it might be true that After Hours revolves around a failed relationship, to reduce it to a break-up album would be to ignore a key player in the story, the other woman, so to speak. Throughout the album, Tesfaye is constantly caught between two impulses: regret and temptation. He wallows in vice of every kind, and the ultimate symbol of this corruptive tendency is the city itself. L.A., and to a lesser extent Las Vegas, cast looming shadows over the entire project. The symbol becomes explicit in “Escape From LA.” “LA girls all look the same / I can’t recognize / The same work done on they face,” he sings with equal parts disgust and infatuation. And in “Blinding Lights,” Tesfaye roams the empty streets of Sin City looking for trouble.

Things fall into place, miraculously, on the title track. The production is sparse—there’s plenty of room for Tesfaye’s vocals to drift around. A note pangs insistently, the sound of broken glass clinks gently. The anticipation is ratcheted up so masterfully you don’t even realize you need the beat until it arrives, two minutes in. Tesfaye has finally stumbled upon the kind of infectious melody he’s famous for, and on “After Hours,” he milks it for all it’s worth. 

There’s no doubt that many of Tesfaye’s fans will be satisfied with this project. It delivers up everything you might want out of an album from The Weeknd: endless self-loathing, a liberal amount of reverb, and plenty of cocaine references. But with his fourth album, Tesfaye’s bleak outlook seems to have worn him out. He can hardly do more than float along, supported by incessantly grandiose production and half-baked lyrics. If there’s anything to learn from After Hours, it’s that Tesfaye has many vices. But his most unforgivable one might be an unwillingness to evolve.

Featured Image Courtesy of Republic Records

March 29, 2020