Despite current circumstances, that ongoing event you tend to see referred to in the media as ‘What’s Going On Right Now’, there is one tiny ray of sunshine. The Weeknd’s new album is very fucking good.
I was a bit of a late adopter of Weeknd – he had stupid hair, and a whiny voice, and I held those things against him for a really long time. In the end though the pop hooks won me over. Twinning the instincts of pop with the atmosphere of R&B is something Weeknd (né Abel Tesfaye) does exceedingly well.
After Hours is Weeknd’s Divine Comedy, where Vegas fills in (ably) for the concentric circles of hell. The Weeknd staggers through the accompanying promo videos dressed in red velvet collar smoking jacket with bloodied face like King of Comedy‘s Rupert Pipkin. Like that movie After Hours is about egomania – starting with a breakup (‘Alone Again’), the moment of no return (‘Too Late’), totalling the car in a coke-induced blackout (‘Blinding Lights’) and, probably, death (‘Until I Bleed Out’).
The month may be March 2020 but the feel is very much November 2019 – the month and year Blade Runner depicts.
(Phillip K Dick (who wrote the novel on which Blade Runner is based) even gets a shout-out, though not one he’d probably appreciate: “She like my futuristic sounds in the new spaceship / Futuristic sex, give her Phillip K dick.” Yes really.)
It starts pretty slowly, and without much flash. The first half of After Hours is very in line with the My Dear Melancholy EP released in 2017. It’s R&B – slow, moody, twilit.
It’s around ‘Heartless’ that a sort of switch is flipped, and we enter a nightmare world of 80s-tinged debauchery. Wobbling synth bass, twinkling hooks and stabs of John Crapenter keyboards characterise a chaotic second-half. But with Max Martin co-producing, it’s also stuffed with brilliant flashy hooks – apocalypse by power-pop.
This synth-heavy second act is buoyed by some of Tesfaye’s best songs to date. ‘Heartless’ is a fusion of trap production and Weeknd’s own blend of self-aggrandization / self-loathing – and the moment in the story of After Hours that our narrator officially embraces a craven life of MD and neon strip lighting.
‘Blinding Lights’ is the best song I’ve heard all year – it rides a vintage 1987 synthline against an Outrun programmed beat on a highway to assured destruction. Doubled up with the sax heavy ‘In Your Eyes’ it’s pure perfection – and Weeknd’s second ode to Chromeo after ‘A Lonely Night’ from Starboy.
After Hours is The Weeknd’s most consistent album to date. It packs great pop with expensive sounding of-the-moment production and a nocturnal 80s horror movie atmosphere. In a word: brilliant.