Intentionally or not, many recording artists’ careers can be divided into chapters, usually defined by albums with a distinctive sound and, often, look: the Beatles’ psychedelic era, Prince’s early ‘80s new wave phase, David Bowie’s “Berlin trilogy,” Kanye West’s “808s and Heartbreak,” and so on.
More than most, the phases of R&B-pop auteur The Weeknd are tightly defined. The three pioneering 2011 mixtapes that launched not only his career but a whole new strain of R&B bled into his more-elaborate but just as dark major-label debut, “Kiss Land.” During that time he was reclusive, declining interviews, rarely being photographed and putting forth a profile as murky as the production on those albums. But 2015’s “Beauty Behind the Madness” was an abrupt and ambitious pivot into big leagues that saw him teaming up with Max Martin, who, with hits ranging from the Backstreet Boys to Taylor Swift, is the most successful producer-songwriter of the past 25 years. That album spawned several massive singles (including “I Can’t Feel My Face” and “In the Night”), featured collaborations with Ed Sheeran and Lana Del Rey, and turned The Weeknd — aka Abel Tesfaye — into a superstar. He got even hotter with the equally massive “Starboy,” released just a year later and highlighted by collaborations with Daft Punk, Kendrick Lamar and Future, which was followed with a “hiatus” that, for this hyper-prolific artist, entailed two tours and a comparatively low-key EP, 2018’s “My Dear Melancholy.”
A month after he turned 30, The Weeknd is launching the next era with his most fully realized album yet, “After Hours.” Sonically, the hallmarks are ultra-cinematic keyboards, pulsating sub-bass, hard beats (which are seldom danceable), ‘80s synthesizer flourishes and caverns of echo, all of which contrast with his high, angelic voice. The sound is distinctively Weeknd, but an unusual progression — it’s somehow sharp and blurry at the same time. Longtime collaborators like Martin, Metro Boomin, DaHeala and Illangelo are present on most of the songs, but as usual he’s brought in an exotic array of fresh blood: electronic musician Oneohtrix Point Never (whose avant textures brings the aforementioned blurry sharpness to several songs), Oscar Holter (DNCE, Tove Lo, Taylor Swift) and one-song drive-bys from Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker, Camila Cabello producer Frank Dukes and Lizzo’s wizard Ricky Reed. It’s a real album too, with a smoothly flowing arc and a loose storyline that presumably follows a still-unfolding plot around the red-jacketed, debauched, busted-nosed character Weeknd portrays in recent videos, who is having such a bad night in Las Vegas.
Unexpectedly, “After Hours” starts off with gentler, quieter songs. The mood is set with the haunting “Alone Again” and “Too Late” — loaded with ominous keyboards and sinister sub-bass — before shifting into the aching “Hardest to Love,” a Martin collaboration with a spiraling chorus that could have been plucked from a late ‘60s pop single; the fact that it’s combined with ricocheting, drum n’ bass percussion that somehow sounds perfectly natural only emphasizes the song’s sophistication.
In an eerie footnote, the term “Alone together” appears in two songs early in the album — a term that, considering the world in which “After Hours” is landing, is sadly fitting for so many self-isolators trying to stay connected.
It’s followed by another killer, “Scared to Live,” a slow-burning ballad (performed on “Saturday Night Live” earlier this month) with an interpolation of Elton John’s “Your Song,” and then the clearly autobiographical “Snowchild.” The song’s lyrics are a remarkably specific series of anecdotes from the singer’s life: memories of his Toronto childhood and rough-and-tumble teen years, contemporary references to paparazzi and a “$20 mil mansion [he] never lived in,” and a rapid-fire rapper-level verse (“Now I’m in Tribeca like I’m Jay-Z/ Rockin’ Sorayama like he pay me/ I just signed a new deal with Mercedes/ Got me movin’ dirty like [Patrick] Swayze/ All my diamonds hittin’ like they Swae Lee”).
Nearly 25 minutes into the album, here come the bangers: The hedonistic advance singles, “Blinding Lights” and “Heartless,” which are already among the biggest hits of his career, and then two more probable hits: “In Your Eyes” and “Save Your Tears,” both of which could have been MTV staples in the early ’80s and are begging for period-appropriate videos. The former has a sax solo straight out of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper,” the latter some thwacking electronic percussion and the vocoder from Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky.”
But the fun ends as the ominous atmosphere returns and the album strikes its defining note with the pulsating title track and then, judging by the title and abrupt end of “Until I Bleed Out,” a presumably unhappy ending.
The Weeknd’s music has always been about contrasts, and here the beauty and the madness are more smoothly integrated than ever. “After Hours” is one of the most successful musicians of the past decade testing the balance between innovation and commerciality as much as anyone today.
Popular on Variety: