The Weeknd’s pain is our joy in ‘My Dear Melancholy’

The Weeknd is pictured performing in August 2017. Via Wikimedia Commons

Since his debut mixtapes in 2011, The Weeknd has captivated listeners with tales of heartbreak and empty hedonism. Born Abel Tesfaye, the singer spent much of his early career as an R&B enigma and steadily acquired a devoted fan base. Though The Weeknd has since become a household name, appearing on the “Black Panther” (2018) soundtrack in February, older fans remain divided over the direction of his recent work. Tesfaye headed for a pop music sound with his most recent full-length album Starboy (2016), channeling Michael Jackson for a set of songs that took risks but ultimately delivered little variety or substance. The moody lyrics and immersive soundscapes of The Weeknd’s most distinct songs had seemingly been traded in for Billboard hit potential. That is, until the release of “My Dear Melancholy” (2018).

Presented as a sort of return to form, this six-track EP sees Tesfaye once again brooding over long pieces of atmospheric production. “My Dear Melancholy” boasts production credits from hip-hop titans Frank Dukes and Mike WiLL Made-It, along with Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo of Daft Punk. As a whole, the sound is impressively cohesive and each track transitions smoothly to the next. Unfortunately, a byproduct of the consistent production style is predictability. The sonic palette is limited, and it is disappointing to hear a lack of the experimental flair we know Tesfaye is capable of. Artistically, The Weeknd remains perfectly in his comfort zone throughout the entire record, for better and for worse. The EP’s set of hit-making record producers creates the most remarkable difference between these songs and his early material: a more refined, trendy approach.

There is only one featured artist on the EP, techno artist Gesaffelstein. The French DJ’s contribution is felt strongly on “I Was Never There,” a highlight with its entrancing sirens and pretty beat switch. The track maintains edge and provides a welcome detour from the darkly rich yet typical instrumentals preceding it. In this way, The Weeknd has married the aesthetic of “Trilogy” (2012) to the accessible melodies and lovelorn lyrics akin to newer releases.

With a high-profile artist often comes high-profile relationships, all of which are universally publicized in the age of social media. The Weeknd is familiar with this dynamic, having dated Bella Hadid and more recently, Selena Gomez. It was anticipated that these relationships, in particular the end of his time with Gomez, would provide lyrical fuel on “My Dear Melancholy.” This has inevitably focused attention on the background of his words rather than the music itself. Several lyrics on the EP appear to reference Hadid and Gomez, some more obvious than others. On the opener, “Call Out My Name,” Tesfaye scorns having “almost cut a piece of myself for your life / Guess I was just another pit stop / ‘Til you made up your mind.” Many interpret this as a reference to a possible kidney donation in the wake of Gomez’s lupus diagnosis, an ordeal followed by a break-up to get back with ex-boyfriend Justin Bieber.

The Weeknd indeed sounds bitter and romantically disillusioned on several tracks, sometimes to the point of conceit. A lyrical approach Tesfaye exhausted in his ‘old’ era was solemn rumination on partying, drugs and sex. This thematic trifecta appears on “My Dear Melancholy” but as a means of mending his broken heart rather than debauchery for its own sake. Perhaps this is a mark of The Weeknd’s maturity: He is no longer content to provide audiences with lyrics that are merely explicit with no depth.

Tesfaye is at his most oddly affecting on standout closer “Privilege,” singing that he “got two red pills to take the blues away.” These moments remind us that The Weeknd is capable of progressing in a way that remains in touch with what made his music so intriguing to start with. It must be frustrating as an artist to experiment with new styles only to find original, passionate fans displeased. On “My Dear Melancholy,” The Weeknd shows that he still does not know quite what kind of music he wants to make. Even so, hints of Tesfaye’s genius are present as ever. A triumphant album is waiting to be discovered somewhere among the unfulfilling after-parties and romantic disappointment.


Summary

3.5 stars
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