“There comes a time in a mans life where he must take responsibility for the choices he has made”, The Weeknd swoons during “Valerie” from Trilogy, his compilation album featuring all three of his cult-classic mixtapes. Fast forward three years and Abel Tesfaye (The Weeknd) seems to have made all the right choices, announcing himself on the world stage as a player to stay. Following Abel since his House of Balloon days, I find it quite strange to hear him on FM radio, since he represented anything but mainstream in those early days. From being an enigmatic figure who hardly made any public appearances, Abel has transformed into a pop icon and now with the release of Beauty Behind the Madness, a pretty much guaranteed platinum album, his name is being used in the same sentence as Michael Jackson.
The title Beauty Behind the Madness may in fact be hinting at the artistic struggle Abel goes through now that he has ‘made it’. When I first listened to House of Balloons, it was almost a cathartic experience. The raw emotion that courses through the mixtape of a stripped-down Abel who has nothing to hide, is almost overwhelming. After signing with Republic Records and becoming a household name, his music has gotten considerably more poppy and doesn’t quite reach the bar he set himself with Trilogy. Maybe the madness he refers to is the constant pressure from record labels to make radio-friendly music, even if it means he doesn’t stay true to his artistic self. Maybe Abel knows he is capable of creating beauty, creating music of Trilogy calibre, yet he is surrounded by madness and it’s slowly consuming him.
The album opens with “Real Life”, which I believe will possibly be one of the greatest concert openers of all time. The guitar synth hits you out of nowhere and 15 seconds in you wish you could experience this live just once. Admitting to his self-destructive nature, the mood is set for a bleak, contemplative album. The Kanye West-produced, “Tell Your Friends”, is starkly different to the distorted sounds Mr West was playing with in Yeezus. The soothing 808s, mixed with an offbeat piano melody go hand-in-hand with Abel’s ethereal vocals. We are taken back to Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy days though, with a heavily auto-tuned interlude laced with heartstring-tugging guitar riffs reminiscent of “Devil in a New Dress” and “Runaway”. Please do release SWISH soon Ye. #postwouldntbethesamewithoutayeezyshoutout. I digress.
One of the singles released pre-album, “Often”, could’ve possibly found itself on Trilogy and thats why I love it so much. The manipulation and layering with sound effects of Abel’s vocals, contributed heavily to the success of Trilogy. The haunting female vocals in the background throughout is actually a Turkish song from the ’70s, which Abel sampled. “My each and every day takes years, I’m tired of going alone”, she broods, which leads us to wonder as much as loneliness and saudade are hallmarks of The Weeknd’s music, is he addicted to the pain associated with such emotions? “Poppin pills, f**kin b****s” seems to be Abel’s motto, and I have a feeling it numbs the pain somewhat.
The groovy, “Can’t Feel My Face”, enables Abel to charter into pop territory yet still maintain his originality. The ’80s bass line mixed with other flanger sounds cements this song as top 10 in 2015 for sure. The album continues on with the funky vibe during the latter half. “Shameless”, “In the Night” and “As You Are” are all tracks you could bust a move to. “Earned It”, the lead single from Fifty Shades of Grey... As I write this I realise there are too many negative emotions attached to this song and if I continue writing it will become a rant so I’ll just say this. This is probably the song that propelled Abel to superstardom and maybe it was the career move that he needed to do but sonically I don’t find it appealing at all. On the bright side, I’m sure if you did a statistical analysis of babies conceived post a Fifty Shades of Grey screening session, the numbers would be truly staggering. Fifty Shade Babies are the future! They earned it.
If you had told me a couple of years ago that an Ed Sheeran and The Weeknd collaboration was happening, I would’ve chuckled and said, “Yea, I hear Tay-tay and Kanye are in the studio together working on a joint album.” Yet here we are and Ed fits right in. ‘”Dark Times” moulds both their voices together perfectly, and the acoustic guitar strumming, characteristic of Sheeran, adds a certain vibrancy that isn’t seen elsewhere on the album. On paper, a feature with Lana Del Rey spells sleepless nights tending to a broken heart, and that’s exactly what “Prisoners” is. We return to the idea of being addicted to “a life so empty and so cold” and it feels almost necessary that Lana be present on this album as she voices the exact same sentiments as Abel.
The album ends on the same high it begins with. Six minutes of epic. Thus far the album seems to be set in a universe which is bleak and unforgiving. Redemption is not possible. The only answer is to delve further into a loveless dystopia. Yet “Angel” provides us with the slight possibility that the souls of Abel and listeners who connect with his music, aren’t too late to be redeemed. Elevating a woman to the pedestal of an angel is very uncharacteristic of The Weeknd. Talking about love for one woman isn’t Abel’s strongest suit but here he is talking about a lady who was “the light in his life”. Could this be him contemplating whether love is actually the answer? The album ends with a subtle chorus of children singing, “I hope you find somebody to love”. Its refreshing to see the innocence of children mixed with Abel’s voice, showing maybe there is always hope. Hope for what? You decide.
It’s safe to say the question whether we will ever get The Weeknd circa House of Balloon days has been answered in this album. He has made the transition to a pop heavyweight and isn’t going anywhere. It’s up to fans to decide whether they will still be with him or look for another underground indie artist who will hopefully be “somebody they can love”.
Hometown: Toronto, Canada.
Latest album: Beauty Behind the Madness, released 28 August 2015.
Sounds like: FKA twigs, Michael Jackson
Say what? The Weeknd never left Toronto for the first 21 years of his life. Talk about love for the 6.
Forever and ever, Suthan