Review Summary: It’s way too late, to save our souls babe…
Abel Tesfaye’s latest album under moniker The Weeknd is a timely release that provides a sensual, mood-laden distraction from our world’s presently encroaching madness and paranoia. The superb After Hours
blinks the listener out of this world and into one where the night never ends, the drugs never stop, and where intimacy is the ultimate intoxicant.
Tesfaye is back to making night-time music for troubled lovers and heartbroken loners, identities which he appears to be taking on once again. The music and the stories feel pared down here compared to recent outings; the superstar visions of grandeur are out, and barebones intimacy and emotionality are in. Tesfaye’s most compelling work has always come from a place of intense vulnerability; with After Hours
, that vulnerability is turned up to a level that matches his groundbreaking Trilogy
-era work. The result is an album of an impressively similar caliber relative to his debut, and its achievements are bound to woo back fans of the early mixtape days.
On After Hours
, Tesfaye takes the best elements of what’s come before and integrates them into a new, unified sound, and thus sets the groundwork for a new era in his music. The dark and hazy, almost psychedelic palette found on the Trilogy
collection makes a return; the ‘80s new wave synth elements explored on Starboy
become foundational to this new sound; his voice—undeniably the core aspect of his appeal—takes on intriguing new colors and forms. Tesfaye shows a newfound sense of maturity, from the music to the lyrics and everything in between; he’s back in control of his career and is a self-realized artist once again.
Opener “Alone Again” gets straight to the point. “Take off my disguise / I’m living someone else’s life / suppressing who I was inside / so I throw two thousand ones in the sky.” Tesfaye pleads for change and to have his identity rewritten. After Hours
shows an artist rebounding from the claustrophobic effects the music business can have on an artist’s creativity, the result of which has Tesfaye embarking on a new search for meaning. Tesfaye’s views on the industry—and superstardom as a whole—have changed, evidenced on “Snowchild,” which sees Tesfaye reflecting on his maturity and changing ambitions, referencing the lyrics “Cali is the mission” from one of his earliest tracks “The Morning.” This time around, though, it’s “Cali was
the mission but now a nigga leavin’.” Tesfaye longs for a change of scenery (Vegas, apparently?). At this point he got what he came for, so to speak, as expressed on “Escape From LA” with Tesfaye detailing how he “got the money, got the cars, got the ceiling with the stars.” In the end, Tesfaye successfully avoids the lethargy that can come with success, and imbues After Hours
with a welcomed sense of immediacy.
After the ambitious opener “Alone Again,” follow-up tracks “Too Late” and “Hardest To Love” show that Tesfaye can continue delivering addicting hook after addicting hook, song after song. Aside from the album’s only glaring misstep “Scared To Live,” Tesfaye successfully churns out top-tier tunes throughout the remaining 56 minutes. Each song provides a unique and interesting angle on the album’s central themes—themes of nostalgia, desire, longing, and self-blame.
Sonically, much of the album keeps to a particular formula: thick and hazy synth pads provide a base, arpeggiated leads bubble and swirl, and 808s provide a classic hip-hop rhythm section that grooves in a way that’s undoubtedly addicting. The production values are top notch, and Tesfaye’s angelic vocals sit squarely in the center of the mix, as they should. Nods to Tesfaye’s ‘80s influences have always been present (see early track: “Heaven or Las Vegas”), and here it’s no different. Also, as cliche as the reference is, one can’t deny the influence Vangelis’ Blade Runner
soundtrack has had on the instrumentals, notably in the opening of ultra-banger “Blinding Lights,” itself a near perfect pop song that hearkens back to that chic ‘80s nostalgia vibe that’s seemingly everywhere at the moment. The subsequent tracks attempt something similar, but don’t quite hit the mark. However, “In Your Eyes” is still worth a listen for the exceptionally cool saxophone.
Tesfaye keeps the formula from becoming stale by subtly introducing new sounds and pulling from an assortment of genres. An apparent interest in UK dance music is present, with “Too Late” stomping with the feet of early ‘00s Garage, and “Hardest To Love” showcasing breakbeats reminiscent of Drum & Bass. The bassline in the chorus of “Heartless” (an otherwise Trap-heavy track) sounds like an homage to the unique basslines of Burial, particularly “Etched Headplate.” All of this is constructed with precise intention atop Tesfaye’s classic experimental R&B style that he and Frank Ocean helped popularize in the early 2010s. The culmination suggests that Tesfaye has indeed redefined his sound in anticipation of another successful decade. While the beginning of the album finds Tesfaye looking back, the latter half sees Tesfaye ready to move forward and seeking catharsis—to exorcise the demons of his past in anticipation of the future. So, what’s next? Where does Abel Tesfaye go from here? Well, wherever he goes, he goes with a reinvigorated sense of artistry and agency.
Part of Tesfaye’s enduring appeal is his ability to separate himself from his persona of The Weeknd just enough for The Weeknd to retain his larger-than-life, almost mystical presence. A modern day Byronic hero, if you will, Tesfaye’s alter-ego exists in a place where sensual desire and intimacy are highly romanticized (capital R) and permeate to a degree just beyond the reality most people occupy. I saw him perform live at a festival in late 2015 and, my god, I’ve never seen someone hold the audience in the palm of their hand the way he did. Man and woman alike, everyone just gazed dreamily with faces of pure bliss. So, while The Weeknd may have been put through the ringer of the industry, the man behind the mask remains the same: Tesfaye is still Tesfaye. Fame and recognition haven’t made him complacent, haven’t stopped him from creating the kind of music he wants to create, and his artistic development post-Trilogy
might just position After Hours
to be his opus.