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Photo: Brian Ziff
Photo: Brian Ziff

6 Takeaways from The Weeknd’s Dawn FM

Abel Tesfaye turns up the 80s energy and morbid themes as he imagines the soundtrack to purgatory.

by Ben Boddez

You have to imagine that one of the most common questions The Weeknd gets is about why he dies so much – often graphically – throughout his music videos and album concepts. On the Toronto R&B/pop icon’s fifth full-length album, he takes his morbid curiosity to an entirely new level – but as it turns out, dying might not be the worst thing in the world if Jim Carrey is guiding you up to the pearly gates. Meant to emulate a seamless radio broadcast that plays in the waiting room as you inch tantalizingly closer to the light at the end of the tunnel, Dawn FM comes complete with advertisements, cheesy jingles, and a classic, smarmy 80s-era radio DJ  as played by fellow Canadian, Carrey.

When After Hours dropped in early 2020, it was and continues to be one of the most influential albums in the pop world. It brought frenetic and intoxicating 80s synthpop back in an overwhelming rush, and “Blinding Lights” became, statistically speaking, the most successful song of all time. Dawn FM sees The Weeknd diving even deeper into the most indulgent aspects of the genre with synth cascades, neon-coloured melodies, and a pulsating, dance floor-ready beat that never stops. It feels like a home for all of the unbridled moments of 80s pop euphoria that he wanted to include on his last project, but couldn’t find a place for due to its overarching story. This time, you can simply sit back and enjoy the radio mix as you wait to meet your destiny.

Here are six takeaways from Abel Tesfaye’s latest:

The Promise of A New Dawn

Although the project seems, on the surface, uncharacteristically mismatched from a narrative standpoint, there does seem to be a couple big connections to the narrative of After Hours. After a heartbreak-fuelled joyride through Sin City, that album faded out with The Weeknd’s death. It seems that the next thing he heard was Jim Carrey’s voice, informing him that he can’t truly ascend to the light unless he lets go of his regrets. Over the course of the album, it does seem that the same toxic relationship he dealt with on After Hours crops up on a couple occasions as he attempts to reckon with his past and finally put it peacefully behind him. After all, the dawn always sheds new light on a reckless night out after hours. 

Behind the Boards

Although experimental electronic music producer Oneohtrix Point Never did appear on two of After Hours’ tracks, The Weeknd hands over the reins to him as the project’s main man behind the boards n this one as his aggressive and interlocking sounds provide the backdrop to an wild night at the discotheque – a term that The Weeknd brings back on the song “Don’t Break My Heart.” The two previously worked together on the Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems, starring The Weeknd and scored by OPN. He’s joined by the recently reunited legendary DJ trio Swedish House Mafia and the man with the most #1 hit singles in history in Max Martin to create a synthpop paradise. Calvin Harris even appears on one track, “I Heard You’re Married,” to reignite his unmistakable Funk Wav Bounce sound and inject some summery energy into the most frigid months.

A-List Admirers

The Weeknd’s lyrics are often intentionally vague and secretive as he discusses his many famous paramours, but we think he might have revealed more than he intended to on a couple of occasions here. It’s known that After Hours primarily concerned his breakup with international model Bella Hadid, and one particularly stinging shot at her new partner, art director Marc Kalman, sees him dismiss him as nothing more than a “basic, faceless” stand-in, “someone to take your pictures.” If The Weeknd was trying to win her back, as he seems to insinuate elsewhere, that might not be the way to do it. Other famous faces seem to come into play later in the tracklist, as “I Heard You’re Married” seems to be directed at Ariana Grande while “Starry Eyes” aligns with comments he’s made about Angelina Jolie, suggesting that it initially didn’t work out because even Super Bowl superstars like The Weeknd get starstruck around her.

Beware of Angels

As usual, even The Weeknd’s brightest, most undeniably joyful-sounding project where he puts the hedonism behind him and finds a sense of peace still contains quite a few darker undercurrents, as the real-life stories he’s trying to leave far behind, back at home on Earth, are sung through placating and hypnotic pop grooves that try their best at masking them. One of the most unexpectedly powerful juxtapositions between the light and dark comes during “Every Angel Is Terrifying,” the album’s break lampooning the radio advertisements of the past. Mostly containing The Weeknd advertising the experience of Heaven as if it were a breathtaking action film, the track begins with a warning bringing to mind the Biblical depiction of angels as a multiple-eyed, literally face-melting creature hidden behind the pleasant veneer often depicted in the media.

Remembering His Roots

It wouldn’t be a Weeknd album without at least one track discussing his early life back in Toronto, and the hometown shoutout comes on the track “Sacrifice.” It feels like it might have come from the same studio session as After Hours track “Snowchild,” as both tracks see him crediting the frigid Canadian winters for putting ice in his veins and resulting in his emotions freezing over whenever he tries to bring them out. At least this time around, a recurring theme sees him acknowledging this and striving to work on it as he attempts to reach the peaceful place on the horizon.

Knowledge from Quincy

While some might call it sacrilegious, The Weeknd’s degree of showmanship and high-pitched vocal stylings often draw comparisons to a modern-day Michael Jackson. Could it be coincidence that The Weeknd recruits Quincy Jones, the legendary producer of Thriller, to speak on an interlude that directly follows a stuttering pop-rock groove and an amped-up guitar riff reminiscent of “Beat It” on the track “Sacrifice”? Jones’ story offers insight into The Weeknd’s entire career as he tries to come to terms with his darker lyricism and the real-life romantic transgressions that inspired them, as he speaks about his own lifelong difficulties with true intimacy due to the lack of strong mother figures in his life.