Review: The Weeknd, ‘Dawn FM’

On his ambitious fifth album, The Weeknd continues down the route of cinematic soundtracks that bridge the past with the future; this time through purgatory bops.

For Abel Tesfaye, every phase of his career is treated like a chapter. There is always a desire to immerse the listener in some sort of world, calculated in whatever the next move is. This facet’s remained in his repertoire while becoming the biggest pop star on earth who’s music has defined the 2010s. “The Hills” changed everything, “Starboy” maintained it, and “Blinding Lights” immortalised him. 2020’s After Hours was his most ambitious work to date, donning a red-suited shell of a man defeated by the demands of Hollywood. A year and a half later, The Weeknd’s opted to move on to the next idea, despite After Hours having plenty juice left in it (I blame the pandemic).

Cali was once the mission, but The Weeknd’s next mission is reaching the afterlife. Dawn FM revisits his signature motif: death, and what awaits him on the other side.

Dawn FM is conceptualised as a radio station for the dead, playing tunes for them on the way to the afterlife. The radio host is actor Jim Carrey, who interjects during songs before closing out the programme on the final track. It appears to picks up where After Hours left off, which ended with Weeknd’s death on the last song, “Until I Bleed Out” (or at least the death of that character). Except now he is old and frail, as shown on the album cover.

After Hours was cryptic and despondent. Dawn FM is direct and accepting of its fate, jumping off the cliff into self-destruction (“And if I finally die in peace / Just wrap my body in these sheets / And pour out the gasoline / It don’t mean much to me”). Throughout Dawn FM, you can imagine Weeknd travelling towards the light, particularly in transitional moments like the intro to “Take My Breath”, a song that titularly matches the album concept. There is a consistent sound in play while the content is scattered thoughts of relationships, which is perhaps fitting for a man on the brink of the unknown, and for an artist who’s toxicity’s transformed into regret for never pursuing true love.

Production is handled by The Weeknd, Oneohtrix Point Never, Max Martin and Swedish House Mafia, who all help navigate the record’s futuristic synths and retro contrasts. Technically, The Weeknd has been there, done that with this sound. But it’s come a long way since the undeveloped efforts on Starboy. It reached its full potential on After Hours, yet Weeknd amps up the dance elements even more on Dawn FM, raising tempos for highlights like “Sacrifice” and “How Do I Make You Love Me?”, his most dance-heavy cuts to date.

“Sacrifice” defines the album’s quest to bridge the past with the future. It draws influence from Michael Jackson’s Bad, rugged in its rock guitars but its electronic twist fast forwarding decades ahead. Tender moments arrive with “Out of Time”, an 80s throwback both in melody and production.

Though the heights of Dawn FM arrive in its most divergent track, “Is There Someone Else?”, which strips out the party for a heartfelt hook and sweet pitched sample. Following track “Starry Eyes” serves as an extended outro to the song, which means the songs would have been better off as one combined track; a knock on Dawn FM‘s laser focus on transitions that are satisfying on the ear but often unnecessary.

As a cohesive album, Dawn FM is a rewarding experience. Though when looked at track by track, Dawn FM can fall short. The 16 tracks include eleven full songs while the rest serve as interludes that could have reached further potential (“Dawn FM”, “Every Angel is Terrifying”). When the best songs are in play, it is courtesy to the first half, leaving the second half of Dawn FM bare either due to interludes or weaker songs (“Best Friends”, “Here We Go… Again”).

Melodically, The Weeknd is often found borrowing from After Hours, and subsequently struggling to deliver hooks as strong or sticky (“Don’t Break My Heart”). Of course there is exceptions to this, but anywhere else finds the production carrying the track. It’s hard to pinpoint moments where Tesfaye’s performances, lyrics or hooks are the dominant attraction. Which is why no song on Dawn FM can hold a candle amongst his best.

A critique that’s overshadowed the rave reviews is the frequent detours from the concept. You would think from the perspective of an elderly man that the content would be reflective, breaking down the choices his younger self made. But the songwriting on Dawn FM focuses on his usual tropes around failed relationships and romantic regret – something he is entitled to think on his way to finality; just not for an entire album. It’s a character that Tesfaye doesn’t embody entirely. If he went the full way, perhaps some of these songs would sound like they serve a greater purpose.

Even through its premature release, Dawn FM is a fulfilling journey that completes The Weeknd’s destiny as an ambitious pop star. Though the competition to be among his best work is high, it is another intense chapter in his precise career. This is death taken to the dancefloor.

7.5 / 10

Best tracks: “Is There Someone Else?”, “Sacrifice”, “Take My Breath”, “How Do I Make You Love Me?”