This year has started off in a big way for Abel Tesfaye – better known by his professional moniker The Weeknd – with the recording artist appearing in the critically acclaimed film Uncut Gems. The Safdie Brothers-helmed thriller features The Weeknd as himself in a surrealist look at the 2012 gambling underground with a private performance by then-rising star Tesfaye.

Noted for its dark, oft-psychedelic imagery and feverish tone, Uncut Gems’ influence on The Weeknd’s subsequent album After Hours is undeniable. The album artwork and surrounding promotion – including two music videos and a short film – present Tesfaye as bruised, bandaged and bloodied with the short film studying the rhetoric of violence and the apparent boiling point of social performance.

Nevertheless, The Weeknd is a music artist, and the aforementioned brooding imagery bleeds into both the lyricism and instrumentation of After Hours in its entirety.

The album follows up Tesfaye’s 2016 Grammy-winning Starboy with the two feature-lengths bisected by a 2018 EP titled My Dear Melancholy. Starboy fixates on electro-pop sensationalism with its tracklist including collaborations with music moguls Daft PunkFuture, Kendrick Lamar, and Lana Del Rey plus production credits to electronic heavyweights such as Diplo and Cashmere Cat.

After Hours, however, borrows more heavily from the glowering gloom of the artist’s more recent EP with Tesfaye dropping precursory commentary on social media in saying, “Tonight we start a new brain melting psychotic chapter! Let’s go!”

Starting with the swirling, atmospheric track “Alone Again,” The Weeknd exchanges the lamentation of his previous release for ideals of self-reflection. While appearing externally to reflect the love-lost narrative of My Dear Melancholy, the song builds musically to bass-blaring cry for help that details the reclaiming grasp of addiction.

Flowing seamlessly into the subsequent track “Too Late,” the album establishes a sequential narrative firmly with the thick, dark tones of “Alone Again.” Scattered beneath arpeggiating synths is an active beat that is rigid in pace but fluid in its exchanging of trap- and bass-beat percussion.

“Hardest To Love” is a bold, exposing feature that masquerades as a lo-fi pop soundscape before shifting the musical onus to an ironically electrified shuffle beat. Engaging with a drum ‘n’ bass style beat scarcely found in mainstream pop music, the track is a painfully reflective piece putting the romantic withholding of past partners on Tesfaye himself.

Drifting delicately out of the explosively percussive predecessor is “Scared To Live,” perhaps the most pop-traditionalist song on the album. Delivering on the lo-fi foundation of “Hardest To Love,” the soft ballad chugs along on soft, wavering chords and a steadfast, slap-back snare.

Departing immediately from traditional tones is the hypnagogic-blended tune “Snowchild.” Laden with drug-imagery, the song contrasts escapism with the necessary escape from drug abuse through syncopated vocals and witty lyricism. The narrative is sustained by a dissociated trap beat pushing off an ambient psychedelia beat that is nevertheless interactive with the diction.

The next track, “Escape From LA”, is inherently recessive in the narrative content, but it explores a fascinating interpretation of neo-soul instrumentation backed by high-profile hip-hop producer Metro Boomin. Spinning in ethereal vocal layers and sporadically cascading harps, the song quite literally drops the beat in favor of a synth-soundscape outro wrought with tension beneath its sublimity.

Halfway through the tracklisting is the emphatic lead single “Heartless” with contributions again from Metro Boomin. With name drops of the producer, the track is in tune with more mainstream productions merging wistful piano with bubbling bass sounds that boil over on the bouncy hook.

Contrasting the reveling hedonism of “Heartless” comes the contemplative “Faith.” Immediately recouping the lyrical concepts of the prior tune, the wailing sirens and buzzing synths bustle with temptation seeking to discredit The Weeknd’s rejection of the drug lifestyle. The instrumentals inevitably collapse into an intensely harmonic and spiritual reclamation in the back of an ambulance.

The album’s second single “Blinding Lights” exchanges the ensnaring sirens for a surreal, literalist interpretation of the previous track’s imagery. Dancing through spritely synths is an energetic four-on-the-floor percussion reminiscent of unmistakable ’80s electropop identifying love as the only relief from the grip of addiction.

“In Your Eyes” serves as more of a put-back than a rebound from the passionate but disillusioned optimism of “Blinding Lights” as it doubles down on the ’80s vibes. While consistent in the indulgent overtones of the album, the track is nurturing, affectionate, and familiar with its spiraling, glittery synths and supplementary brass & sax fanfare.

The latter half of the album continually builds clarity in both sound and narrative as “Save Your Tears” carries the up-tempo momentum and bright tone of the two tracks before. Distancing from the daze of the album’s most interior moments, the production is comparatively lucid and feels tightly electro-acoustic as opposed to the electronic-purist composition of the album otherwise.

The subsequent interlude – a dizzying and hypnotic piece titled “Repeat After Me (Interlude)” – exudes dense psychedelia by way of supporting producers Kevin Parker (Tame Impala) and OPN. Laced with distorted vocals that come and go with the whimsical aggression in the instrumental, the track is slowly saddled with a growling bass that indicates the self-obsessiveness that set the scene for the pining lyrics.

While the feelings of regret expressed in the eponymous single “After Hours” seem like a regression to The Weeknd’s earlier lyrical fixations – especially given the reminiscent dark tone and multi-tracked vocals – the tune marks a monumental moment of progress. Cognizant of the lingering blame even in this track, the song serves as both concession and reconciliation. Thus, the juxtaposition of previously utilized melancholy synths and a motivated step-beat beside thematically new ideas in narrative feels like a natural culmination of the album’s ideals.

After Hours is drawn to a close by the epilogue-of-sorts titled “Until I Bleed Out.” Serving as a primarily ambient outro, the track hums with a resonating retro-industrial sound that slowly builds to the apparent collapse indicated by the promotional art – “until I bleed out.”

And while the resolution of the album is perhaps tonally closer to expectations for a typical album from The Weeknd, the script is apparently flipped with Tesfaye resolving to cut out what one would previously presumed to be a lover. Yet with the stage set as it has throughout After Hours, we are left to wonder what he seeks to rid himself of: a toxic love, a destructive addiction, or an inescapable self-involvement.

And as he reflects upon the pressures of publicity and mounting internal aggression, it’s worth considering how his social shackles could be different sides of the same coin.

An unannounced deluxe edition of After Hours was released several hours including five remixes and renditions of songs from the album. The extended play brings renowned artists and producers into the fold including Johnny Jewel, The Blaze, and rap star Lil Uzi Vert among others.

Can you pick a favorite track off the latest release from The Weeknd? Let us know in the comments – though it’s obviously a tough decision!

 

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