As one of this generation’s most beloved and influential pop and R&B stars, The Weeknd has the privilege of dropping 2022’s first must-listen album with his conceptual and ethereal Dawn FM. The concept of an album as a radio-station listening experience is nothing particularly new, Vince Staples did something similar with his FM! record, but Abel Tesfaye goes deeper with the concept, more in the vein of Janelle Monae‘s The Electric Lady, which presented not only as a retro radio station, but a pirate one, keeping the resistance supplied with jams under a dystopian dictatorship. The Weeknd similarly weaves the concept into his own overarching aesthetic and narrative of fast living, fast loving and fast dying: Dawn FM is a radio station presided over by disco jockey Jim Carrey, playing in a waystation between earth and heaven, consoling recently departed souls with “easy listening”. It’s a bold choice for such a mainstream artist as Abel and one he pulls off with aplomb thanks to his trademark spectral vocals and retro futurist sound.
The concept of listening to music on a radio is already a retro conceit, and The Weeknd doubles down on the ’80s synth power pop he debuted with his last album After Hours, which in under two years has already proven massively influential with it and Dua Lipa‘s earlier Future Nostalgia jointly leading the charge of ’80s aesthetics into mainstream pop (they had long begun to infest movies and especially TV post-Stranger Things). However, while on After Hours Abel’s adoption of ’80s aesthetics could occasionally feel a little one dimensional, like a shallow hit of nostalgia—the biggest hit “Blinding Lights” bore eerie echoes of possibly the most defining ’80s hit, “Take On Me”—here on Dawn FM, he takes things in a more artful, cohesive and ambitious direction, hitting you with track after track of glamorous, funky synth rock.
Historically, Abel has always been held back by a lack of good songwriting, there’s a decent number of tracks of his I’ve wanted to love but have been kept an arm’s length from by an eyebrow raising line or just the underdeveloped, one dimensional imagery and themes. He’s rarely been an artist to bring be back for more than one or two songs per project. For possibly the first time ever, on Dawn FM Abel has the tunes to back up his vocal talents, and every song here feels at least somewhat as fulfilling and essential as the obvious singles, with even the cooler and mellow moments on the second half having enviable dynamics, pristine production and tasteful performances.
The only real missteps feel like the features. Although Tyler the Creator and Lil Wayne are both enviable guests in most contexts, neither feels like they really belong on an album as glossy and high-premise as this. Some guest vocalists like Justin Vernon, Caroline Polachek, FKA Twigs or James Blake who could have sparred with Abel harmonically might have gone over a lot better. The heavy synthetic, almost hyper-pop bass on “Best Friends” even sounded like something Charli XCX might have slain over.
After the intro, which establishes the concept almost as swiftly and clearly as I did, the first proper track “Gasoline” is a magnificent departure for Abel vocally, for once forgoing his typical falsettos and adopting a more measured, propulsive tone reminiscent of Michael Stipe (who he explicitly name-checks). The trippy dance beat and rippling synths on this track are a sultry warm-up for the glamorous chorus sections, and the lyrics paint a visceral portrait of Abel throwing himself gleefully into his own destruction, confident his companions will see him through, or at least perform an appropriate sacrament with his remains.
It’s not long before his more familiar vocal style returns though, with the ambitious, multi-phased lead single “Take My Breath”, which builds and builds like a space shuttle building speed for takeoff. On the track “Sacrifice” the comparisons between Abel and Michael Jackson have never felt more appropriate as the final bridge sees him pull off an uncanny MJ impersonation, and the rubbery funk-tastic bassline just adds to that impression.
Speaking of Jackson, the record’s retro credentials are certified by no less than ’80s legend Quincy Jones, who appears to deliver a personal and revealing spoken interlude on the track “A Tale By Quincy” where he details how his childhood abandonment issues have sabotaged his adult relationships. Given how Abel presents himself in his music, it’s clear how he might see a lot of himself in this tale, which ushers in the slower, more sombre and reflective second half of the album, one populated by the kind of toxic relationship portraits we’re used to hearing from Abel, though rarely with this much self awareness and tragedy, the tracks playing like a lifetimes regrets and shameful episodes replaying before the protagonist’s eyes as he’s ushered into the great beyond, far too late to make amends.
Yet the album still has a redemptive quality one might say was lacking —or at least absent from—The Weeknd’s past efforts. The last run of tracks like “I Heard You’re Married” and “Less Than Zero” see Abel’s protagonist taking the high road and possibly turning over a new leaf, breaking his self-destructive cycles. But relapse has always been a part of Abel’s narrative, and the cyclical, purgatorial nature of the album’s presentation doesn’t necessarily bode well. The closing track is a stunning spoken word poem delivered by Carrey, implying heaven is a choice we make: are we doomed to an endless purgatory? Or can be break the cycle and make it to the light?