Wednesday, April 4, 2018

album review: 'my dear melancholy,' by the weeknd

Let's be honest: we all knew this was coming. We all knew The Weeknd had seemed a little too quiet for too long - yes, he showed up on that Black Panther song, but the last few hits from Starboy had sunk away and other artists had surged up to seize the hype in R&B, usually by ripping him off with a trap flourish. And when word dropped that he had a surprise project and fake track lists began flooding the internet with word suggesting he was going back to his old sound, it was hard for me to work up a lot of excitement. And that might seem kind of weird, given how often he's wound up on my year-end lists for singles - and that doesn't even get to 'False Alarm', which is arguably the best thing he's done since Thursday - but those are individual songs, not full projects. Hell, the only full-length projects I'd say truly gripped me from The Weeknd were Thursday and Echoes of Silence, and while many were saying this EP was a return to his old sound, when I didn't see Illangelo's name on the production list I wasn't remotely convinced. But hey, he kept it short, six songs just over twenty minutes, there were some intriguing names like Skrillex and Nicolas Jaar of all people on production, and we didn't get that XXXTENTACION collaboration I saw lurking on some fake track lists. So what the hell: how is My Dear Melancholy,?

Honestly, I'll be very blunt: if The Weeknd wasn't such a hot property that I could guarantee a fair few songs will hit the Hot 100 from this thing, I'd have probably put this project on the Trailing Edge. Folks, there's so little here worth caring about it's genuinely startling, with individual songs feeling more distinctive for what specific producers are bringing to the table than anything The Weeknd is saying or doing with these tracks. It quite literally sounds like a collection of desaturated, crooning b-sides that should have been cut from Kiss Land. And considering how thoroughly mediocre Kiss Land was - oh get over it, it's been five years and I doubt even diehard fans would admit that's his best work in either R&B or pop - that's far from a good sign!

But even then, My Dear Melancholy, raises larger questions surrounding the production direction, because if you're looking for a record to be wowed by The Weeknd's vocals, this isn't it. For me he's always been at the most compelling when he either leans into his slick, vibrant coolness or his unstable, nihilistic intensity, the distinctive ugly side where the dichotomy most comes to bear on songs like 'False Alarm'. Crooner Weeknd... look, there's not the same edge or presence, and on this project it seems like the production is more interested in submerging him into waves of murky electronics and dour synthesizers, or making obvious callbacks to other Weeknd songs. I don't even like 'Earned It', but 'Call Out My Name' is obviously trying to capitalize on that tempo and vibe from the waltz cadence to the stately vibe that does nothing to utilize the Nicolas Jaar sample and features some blown out vocals for no decent reason - and that's not even getting to the samples of other Weeknd songs in that mix! But frankly, I'd probably prefer those to the gummy synth choices on 'Try Me' or the ugly, wheedling airhorn blasts that characterize both 'I Was Never There' and 'Hurt You', both courtesy of French producer Gesaffelstein, most of which seem to have more actual presence forward in the mix than The Weeknd's vocals! Granted, on the former song I do appreciate that beat switch to a major key for a dark, swampy bridge, but it's followed by a tune where The Weeknd is sampling his own collaborations with Daft Punk and it's hard not to feel like they're immediately better thanks to a greater sense of tightness. The final song 'Privilege' gets close to a slightly more textured, lo-fi vibe, but then it seems to drown itself in dank vocal filters and any faint wheedling whistles can't help but feel suffocated in the mix. 

And honestly, I struggled to find any one song that had much of a hook or really stood out to me beyond just murky rehashes of content The Weeknd has done before and done better, so what about lyrics? Well, like the rest of the record it's murky - most of these are post-breakup songs seeing The Weeknd slip back into the same booze-and-pills soaked depression that wracked his earlier work, with references to exes Selena Gomez and Bella Hadid. Granted, The Weeknd is handling none of these situations well, but to give the slightest credit to the production it does actually reflect somebody slipping into a miserable downward spiral, so the framing is on point. And it's telling how on songs like 'Try Me' and 'Wasted Times' he at least attempts the rebounds, but you can tell the sex was pretty much the only tenuous connection they had, he knows it, and thus he's just stalling against the inevitable. And to his credit, you don't have to know or really care about the gossip to follow the thin arc we get on this project... even if it's the sort of arc that leaves us back at square one with The Weeknd. This is not something I normally bring up in reviews, but considering the writing is not all that detailed or interesting, it does bear scrutiny what sort of backslide this represents for The Weeknd, because thematically his arc has not been traditional love stories but reconciling the possibility that he can be vulnerable and be loved... and when you have 'Privilege' explicitly saying how he'll go back to his old ways... yeah, it might make for more interesting, vivid stories of debauchery, but what concerns me a lot more is that this EP didn't make that downfall all that interesting or compelling, just a sour wallow before succumbing to melancholic, self-pitying nihilism. Can't believe I'm about to say this, but The Weeknd finding love and a belief he could love another was a lot more emotionally compelling than any arc here.

Ugh, look, this is a record with a very specific purpose and arc, to provide a snapshot on The Weeknd's life and arc within his music, and if anything it reminds a lot of Tove Lo's Lady Wood, another desaturated exploration of bleakness that also felt like an underwritten backslide. To The Weeknd's credit, his self-awareness adds to good framing both in his content and his production, but a near total lack of good hooks and momentum leave this leaden and feeling a lot longer than it is. For me, it's a light 5/10, only recommended to diehard fans, and otherwise you can skip this. It doesn't exactly give me any good feelings where his content will go next - he says he's ending it with a smile, but it's pretty damn rictus from the sidelines - but hey, this is only an EP, we'll have to wait and see.

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