Wednesday, August 26, 2015

album review: 'beauty behind the madness' by the weeknd

Well, it's been quite the road to get to this point - because if you had told me the guy making bleak, shamelessly debauched party songs revelling in self-destructive nihilism now has had a fair few of the biggest hits of the past year, I'd have called you crazy.

But now here we are, and now it's time for me to make a definitive statement on The Weeknd, Canadian R&B star who surged through the underground with his goth-tinged debauchery before getting recruited by Drake to break into the mainstream. And to say The Weeknd is a complicated character is kind of understating it: in the process of preparing for this review, I revisited both the mixtape compilation Trilogy and his debut Kiss Land, and putting aside the fact that they're both way too long and underwritten to really support themselves, The Weeknd is an odd sort of artist. On the one hand, I like when his production steps into pummelling, groove-heavy darkness, the sort that dominated the second and third mixtapes in Trilogy, the excellent Thursday and the quite strong Echoes of Silence - on the other hand, if it didn't have that momentum or atmosphere or grit, the songs nearly all went long and could start to blur together, even despite some nifty sampling. I did like that most of his songwriting did improve to tell more complicated stories as Trilogy proceeded that owned their framing of The Weeknd as a shameless, sex-and-drugs-depraved artist spiralling out of control - and the women that would be drawn to that persona - but it was very easy for that melodrama to lose some of its dark, enticing flavour as it repeated over and over. As I've said, nihilism just gets boring after a while if you don't vary the formula. I think my biggest hangup on The Weeknd has always been his voice, but I think that's an issue of him actually sounding engaged on a song - when he tries, he can be a potent presence behind the microphone.

Either way, enough of it came together for The Weeknd to get signed and release his debut Kiss Land, a prime example why it can be a dangerous thing for acts like The Weeknd to get a major label budget. The record sounds opulent and huge, but it pitches so much of the atmosphere and grit to get there that the tracks become nowhere near as immersive, mostly courtesy of The Weeknd leaving behind the producers that got him to the top, especially Illangelo. Coupled with lyricism that seemed to devolve straight back to his oldest material and were again repeating subjects he had tackled before with an even more delicate falsetto - again, not the best fit for this subject matter - I couldn't help but consider Kiss Land a real disappointment.

And then two things happened in rapid succession that took The Weeknd to the top: he collaborated with Ariana Grande on the absolutely stellar song 'Love Me Harder', and Fifty Shades Of Grey happened, where he landed on two songs including the smash hit 'Earned It' - which really wasn't any good, if I'm being honest. That said, I had reason to believe Beauty Behind The Madness would at least be interesting. For one, he pulled Illangelo back on board, and for another, his features and producers list suggested some obvious collaborations - Lana Del Rey and Kanye West - and a few surprising ones, like Max Martin and Ed Sheeran. It also looked to be less bloated than his mixtapes and Kiss Land, which was only a positive step, so did we find actual quality behind Beauty Behind The Madness?

Well, it's an improvement on Kiss Land, I can say that, as it shows The Weeknd bringing more experimentation and comfort to the larger, more impactful instrumentation he's trying to utilize... but it's an experiment with mixed results across the board that ultimately leaves me feeling a little cold, especially when I look at the actual content. And the frustrating thing is that there are definitely moments where he gets close to something that shows the shifts in style could have worked, there are nuggets of brilliance across this record - except that they seldom ever make up a whole song, let alone an album. In other words, there are elements I like here... just not enough to build a full album.

So let's start by talking about them in the instrumentation and production. In terms of instrumental tone, the album hasn't departed that far from the melancholic melodrama that has driven all of The Weeknd's material, but we are getting more flavours of it, some that work better than others. In some cases we get more of the symphonic bombast with walls of strings and bleak pianos that work surprisingly well on 'Real Life' especially with the choppy strums on the outro or the Jim Steinman-esque 'Angel' with the soaring synths... but on the opposite end we get the stately yet stiff 'Earned It' that's about as unsexy as the 50 Shades Of Grey movie it soundtracked. Or take 'Losers', which features some great multitracking on the bridge and a great underlying melody on most of the keys... until we get an overloaded popping beat that doesn't have enough groove to match the unstable jittery keys or the big brass band that ends out the song! Or take the stab at soul on 'Tell Your Friends' courtesy of Kanye West's production that then juxtaposes it with blocky walls of synth that don't match the sample at all and show up all over the album to varying impact, the most exasperating when they aren't even on tune on 'Prisoner'. Or take the outright stabs at pop that scream of trying to emulate Michael Jackson like on 'Can't Feel My Face', which blows a great crescendo on a bass-heavy and completely inert vocal delivery from The Weeknd, or the wind-swept, percussion-heavy 'In The Night' which actually works pretty damn well even as half of it feels swamped under the massive low-end synth wobbles. Granted, if we're looking at swallowed mixes, look no closer than 'The Hills', probably the closest thing this record gets to Thursday-esque grit and darkness, and yet the bass is cranked up so loud in the mix it drowns nearly everything else - and the exasperating thing is that it's so leaden that the beat never gets the cracking intensity it needs! Granted, there are moments that connect better, like the buzzing trap-percussion augmenting the pummelling smoky darkness of 'Often', the faded bleakness of 'Shameless' with its acoustic guitar, or the spiky strums courtesy of Ed Sheeran on the grimy 'Dark Times' that really just sounds like a Hozier outtake that squanders some great atmosphere by then bringing in a full strings section at the end. Again, what's frustrating is that there are good ideas here, but they feel squandered by sloppy mix balance and The Weeknd's bad tendency to let his songs fade into dreary outros, which are mostly fine when you get guitar solos like on 'Shameless' and 'Tell Your Friends', but autotuned and pitch-shifting warbling? Not so much.

Granted, part of the issue is The Weeknd himself. Multiple times throughout the course of this album I wondered why his material wasn't hitting me nearly as hard as it was trying for, but really it's the same issue I've had with him across his entire career, in that he's incredibly inconsistent on the microphone. When he sounds tight or visceral or even just petulant like on 'Shameless', he can make his impressive vocals land impact... but through most of this record we're stuck with his shapeless tenor warbling through tracks and it's just too underweight at that register to match with his instrumentation. It worked on the grimier moments of Trilogy because it was often masked in fuzz or reverb or lo-fit grit, or even on this album where there is some multi-tracking that gives him the presence he needs, but without more baritone, he can feel swamped by his own instrumentation. And that's presuming we find moments where he can be obliged to give a shit about what he's singing - and yes, I know disaffection is an underlying trait of his, but I'll say the same thing about him I say about Lana Del Rey - who actually gives a pretty decent performance on her track 'Prisoners' - if the artist doesn't care, why should I?

Granted, this album might be the first where The Weeknd is forcibly confronted with the possibility he does care, which takes us to lyrics and themes. Now you'd easily be forgiven for thinking that much of this album falls into The Weeknd' conventional debauchery, but there is more variation here as The Weeknd not only comes to grips with his new success and fame, but also that his lifestyle has proven depressingly influential. If the album was a little smarter it'd make more commentary on it, how The Weeknd chose that lifestyle for himself and he's fully aware the nihilism will drag him into the pit of his own free will and how that path isn't for anyone, but instead it's more interested in confronting The Weeknd with the possibility he's starting to have feelings for a few of the girls he's screwing. And if we're looking for a source of 'drama', it'd be watching The Weeknd grapple with this newfound affection, which manifests as numb exhilaration on 'Can't Feel My Face', the artificial distance he's tempted to create on 'Acquainted', shameless sniping at the girls who are cheating for him on 'The Hills' and 'Shameless', to the odd empathy he shows the dead-eyed stripper on 'In The Night' or the girl he lets free on 'Angel', the one who gets away instead of remaining in the darkness. Probably the most intimate moment is when he tries to get the girl to open up to him on 'As You Are' - and in the outro it flips so he can show more of himself.

But here's the big problem with the narrative arc on this album: it feels like a half-measure. The Weeknd begins the album certain he's not interested in love, and by the end of the record, he's still walking that dark, debauched path - hell, with Lana Del Rey's presence on 'Prisoner' and Ed Sheeran's bars about his alcoholism on 'Dark Times', he's found companions clinging to the same addictions. But The Weeknd ends this album where he started: alone, and convinced he isn't worthy of love, and as much as this album tries to wring potent drama out of him learning to care, a lot of it feels forced and undercut. The Weeknd is convinced throughout the majority of this record that he's not going to change, and even if he's learned a bit of empathy, I get no satisfaction because The Weeknd doesn't do anything all that different. He admits his life is dangerously empty and yet there's no change, so as much as this album cranks up the beats and bombast, the melodrama feels forced, and not nearly having the same texture that made his earlier material so compelling.

So in the end... look, this isn't a bad album, but I'm struggling to find more reasons to care about it, and that's not a good sign. Part of it is The Weeknd himself - there might be more of a story here, but so much of the beats feel recycled from his better albums with more grandiose production trying to get us to care when he doesn't. And while there's a part of me that thinks a better, more earnest R&B singer like Usher or maybe Miguel could have made this work with more expressive charisma, it still wouldn't solve the production issue or the occasionally sloppy songwriting in repeating syllables and words to fill up space or the fact that, again, this album runs longer than it should. For me, it's a light 6/10 and only a recommendation if you're a fan. Otherwise, check out Thursday or Echoes Of Silence - they're both a lot more impressive and potent than this.

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