The Weeknd has seen brighter days, but more importantly, he has survived darker ones. On his first album in nearly four years — the longest break in his career thus far — the Toronto native opens up like never before about heartbreak, drugs and how the combination of the two has changed the man he is today.
After Hours (out now) is a sharply produced confessional by an artist who has been topping the charts for nearly a decade. While 2015’s Beauty Behind the Madness is his magnum opus (thanks to timeless classics like “Can’t Feel My Face” and “In the Night”) and 2016’s Starboy delivered one radio-friendly tune after another, After Hours masters something that neither of its predecessors were able to achieve: the art of cohesion.
The featureless album as a whole is melancholy, not only in the lyrics and tone of The Weeknd’s voice but also the instrumentation itself. It is haunting to hear, with hard-driving beats in line with his 2012 compilation, Trilogy. The opener, “Alone Again,” is slow-building and cinematic as the Grammy winner, 30, begs his lover to “break my little, cold heart.” It centers on an overdose scare, with lyrics such as, “Check my pulse for a second time / I took too much, I don’t wanna die.” He continues to deal with crippling loneliness and places blame on himself on the sinisterly synthetic “Too Late” and the Max Martin-coproduced drum ’n’ bass track “Hardest to Love.”
Much of the project is autobiographical, borrowing themes from The Weeknd’s early mixtapes like his 2011 debut, House of Balloons. On the beat-heavy “Snowchild,” he reflects on his come-up, from his time dabbling in drugs as a teen (the title is a clear nod to cocaine) to buying a home in “Tribeca like I’m Jay-Z.” He also mourns a failed relationship, likely his one with Bella Hadid. The Weeknd has a moment of clarity on the nearly six-minute “Escape From LA,” realizing that his relationship with his partner will only succeed far away from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles, where they are tempted by various vices when they are not together. “She a cold-hearted bitch with no shame,” he sings bitterly.
The lead single, “Heartless,” finds the singer-songwriter bragging about his less-than-stellar traits: “dodgin’ death in the six-speed,” taking amphetamines until he’s “feelin’ sickly” and “runnin’ through” women like it’s nobody’s business — except he makes his hedonistic ways everyone’s business in the process, making it hard at times to take his side. His drug-addled nights pour over into “Faith,” a nu-disco banger that experiments with a variety of sounds and melodies, including an ever-looming ambulance siren.
While not officially marketed as such, After Hours flows like a good ‘ol concept album, with the most suave transition being “Hardest to Love” into “Scared to Live.” The Weeknd debuted the latter on Saturday Night Live, but the studio version is somehow even more polished than the already superb live rendition. The breakup ballad is a clear standout on the album, with some of the entertainer’s strongest vocals to date. On the second half of the record, the progressions only grow stronger, most notably when “Save Your Tears” segues into the psychedelic and sex-crazed interlude “Repeat After Me,” which Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker produced.
The Weeknd showcases his angelic falsetto throughout the album while mixing his signature blues with ‘80s glam. Side B is jam-packed with upbeat dance numbers such as “Blinding Lights” and “In Your Eyes,” the latter of which eases up on boisterous behavior in lieu of being vulnerable with a partner (with a killer saxophone solo to boot). “I tried to find love / In someone else too many times,” The Weeknd confesses. “But I hope you know I mean it / When I tell you you’re the one that was on my mind.”
The moody LP comes to an end with the dark, pulsating title track and “Until I Bleed Out.” The Weeknd meets a tragic end with the blistering closer, on which he admits feeling “paralyzed” and “terrified” after giving someone every last fibre of his being and realizing it still wasn’t enough. “I wanna cut you outta my dreams,” he concedes. And while that may be the case, there isn’t a song on After Hours worth cutting.
3 stars (out of 4)
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