The Weeknd is back with his first album in four years After Hours and it couldn't be any more anticipated. Singles Blinding Lights and Heartless have both been chart stormers with the title track suggested a shift back to the moody music he begun his career with. All three have been a mixed bag so we're going to dig into the album and see how they fit with the grander scheme of things.
The opening songs to the last two Weeknd records have been grandiose - Starboy and Real Life. Alone Again, however, is a gentler start. Over twinkling synths Abel Tesfaye sings, "Take off my disguise, I'm living someone else's life." The song expands into a glossy, distant horizon before transforming into something beat-heavy. It's one of the most experimental Weeknd songs we've heard production-wise but it's a glorious opener.
Already you can feel the cohesiveness of this record. As per usual, it's after dark music but there's something even more lonely and corrupt about this one. Too Late dips into drum 'n' bass territory but still moves at an elongated pace. "It's way too late to save our souls," he sings as the production rises and falls with drama.
Hardest To Love
This is the first Max Martin production of the bunch and it's easy to pick given its strong hooks. The drum 'n' bass production is back which is rare for Martin but it's interesting to hear. There's real eerie loneliness to this and Tesfaye's voice sounds crystalline. "I've been the hardest to love," he sings, once again purposefully crafting himself as a corrupt, unloveable human. It's a perfect pop song.
Scared To Live
Tesfaye has proved he can carry a ballad on a number of occasions but there's something even more daring about this one. It's a spacious moment driven by a shuddering beat and Tesfaye's vocals are some of the most ambitious of his career. Oneohtrix Point Never has a writing credit here which is interesting given he's one of the most experimental creators involved with the record and this is one of the most direct songs. It's easy to hear Whitney Houston singing over this - a proper ballad with all the right goosebumps moments.
After a few softer moments, Snowchild brings Tesfyae back to those unfiltered, autobiographical lyrics. It's different to its lyrical peers like Reminder. Tesfaye's voice is gentler and the backdrop feels melancholic like he regrets his behaviour rather than celebrates it. This one is harder to immediately grasp than the songs we've heard so far but it's a grower.
Escape From LA
It's an interesting time to drop an album like this. After Hours seems to be all about leaving behind his sin-inducing life and going into isolation. Escape From LA, in that way, is the centrepiece of the record. It's a stirring mid-tempo track that has him singing, "This place will be the end of me, take me out." His subtle runs in the verses here are masterful. His vocal quality through the whole record has been pretty sublime so far. Hanging in here to see how this song justifies its 6-minute length....
Okay, he's used the last few minutes to get pretty raw about a sexual experience in the studio. This is vintage Weeknd. Trilogy shit.
Given that most of these songs have been coated in regret, Heartless feels like an interesting shift in the record. Weeknd fans live for these kind of explicit, raw lyrics and he gives them exactly what they want here.
This is Tesfaye's relapse moment and it's a pretty dark track. "I've been sober for a year now," he signs before admitting, "Thought I'd be a better man but I lied to you and me." That leads to one of the darkest lines of record - "If I OD, I want you to OD right beside me." We then get sirens and a mournful synth roles in. The finale of this song is the most chilling moment on the record.
In Faith he sings, "The lights are blinding me again," before rolling straight into Blinding Lights. We already know and love this bold, muscular pop song and it feels like a bit of a revival in the context of the album. He spends most of the album attempting to become comfortable with loneliness but this is an admission that he needs someone.
In Your Eyes
Now we're in '80s synth-pop mode and it feels so good. Martin is back and he's flexing his pop muscle hard here. The big pop songs have often felt a little out of place on Weeknd records but here he's effortlessly stitched them into the story of After Hours. Here, at track 10, is one of the finest pop songs of his entire career and it feels right. There's a deep nostalgia to the sound of this and I love that they don't shy away from it. The horns at the end are bonkers and brilliant. A very exciting moment.
Save Your Tears
From one A-grade pop song to another. Max is back on board and together with Oscar Holter they have created a flickering, neon pop song about pleasing for a lover back. Despite the lyrical turmoil, Tesfaye just sounds so comfortable on this album. It's like he's finally found a way to bridge his superstar persona with the music he was introduced to the world with on Trilogy.
Repeat After Me (Interlude)
Now we have Kevin Parker and OPN on board for a woozy, hypnotic moment. "You don't love him, you don't love him," Tesfaye repeats over a beat that sounds like it would've been at home on Travis Scott's Astroworld.
We know and we love this one. It successfully pairs together the isolated moodiness of the record with the dance influences brought in mostly by producer Illangelo. That falsetto just stabs at the heart throughout this whole song particularly when he's singing things like, "Sorry that I broke your heart."
Until I Bleed Out
An atmospheric, cinematic moment to close out the album. If you were hoping for a happy ending, it's not to be found here. This is rock bottom for The Weeknd - a realisation that he's lost everything. "I keep telling myself that I don't need it anymore," he sings as if he's going to give up and start the cycle again.
This is without a doubt The Weeknd's best album since Trilogy. He's always had difficulty bridging the mixtape and superstar phases of his career but here it feels like it all comes together. It's a narrative-based listen tied together by experimental moments of darkness and big, bold pop songs. On Starboy, it felt like he was grabbing for hits at times but here he does everything for the good of the album as a whole. Collectively, it's a thrilling listens but every single song stands on its own too.