At this point it’s worth applauding Abel Tesfaye for simply accomplishing what he set out to achieve in the amount of time he said he was going to achieve it. For all we know all three Weeknd mixtapes could have been finished around March when House of Balloons plopped onto the web, but somehow, judging by the lyrical evolution and self-awareness found on each subsequent tape, I don’t think so. Enough can’t be said for musicians/artists/people working hard enough to make good on promises and deadlines, especially when, with regard to The Weeknd, you’ve stacked time and quality expectations against you (not to mention effort made elsewhere). Yeah, Tesfaye didn’t manage to top the heights of House of Balloons with its followup, Thursday, or his newest release, Echoes of Silence, but that each release stands on its own as a fully formed pop record with a unique color, each coming out within four months of the last, is kind of unprecedented.
It’s hard not to ignore the nine month span of the Weeknd mixtape trilogy – as it’s apparently being referred to – and the obvious temptation to judge each mixtape in comparison to the last. The knee-jerk online consensus seems to be Echoes trumps Thursday while House of Balloons still outshines both. It’s probably an accurate, if not hair-splitting evaluation, but there’s enough separating each tape for all three to offer their own individual experience as well as contribute to a congruent two and half hour whole (i.e. trilogy). House of Balloons, while outlining Abel’s predatory hedonistic tendencies, still managed to occupy a place in touch with contemporary R&B and blog-based hip-hop (“What You Need,” “The Morning,” “Wicked Games”). Thursday delved somewhere altogether more abstracted and psychedelic, if not bombastic or anthemic (“Lonely Star,” “Life of the Party,” “The Birds Part 1”). It also found Abel honing his often starkly at-odds desperate and vampiric persona where House of Balloons merely seemed like an introduction.
Echoes of Silence is arguably The Weeknd’s most fully formed album-oriented statement thus far. Lyrically, each song distinguishes itself with a sharpened thematic focus and the album as a whole paints an incredibly vivid psycho analysis-ready picture of the depths Abel’s histrionic and narcissistic, if not sadistic, personality delves to. Honestly, it makes other R&B music narcissists readily associated as The Weeknd’s peers simply look rote and vapid, barely exceeding ego postulation, where Abel is willing to drop into the realm of pathetic with the amount of lyrical detail and intricate reality that finds its way into Echoes. “Outside” and “XO” both paint push-pull borderline co-dependent sexual relationships – the difference found in respective lines “let’s make it seem like we’re all we need / in the end” and “if they won’t let you in / you know where to find me.” It becomes obvious as Echoes of Silence proceeds that Tesfaye, in fact, sees himself as the drug, and the references to various substances, the effects of his nature rather than simple indulgences. But, there are enough glimpses into the conscience behind the self-destruction and sadism to go beyond one-dimensional shock shlock or simple self-aggrandizement. “The Fall,” which features a production turn from Clams Casino, has enough evidence to support Tesfaye’s claim of “I ain’t scared of the fall,” but then things settle and we get this cringe-worthy notation: “Mama, I understand why you’re mad / and it hurts to accept what I am / and how I live / and what I do / but I’ve been good since Thursday.”
“Initiation” finds the manipulation and depravity at its height and Tesfaye at his most detestable, detailing an escapade of intoxication and group-sex in exchange for the prize of Abel’s affection (“you said you want my heart / well, baby you can have it all / there’s just something that I need from you / is to meet my boys”). The ego-aggrandizement would be laughably overwrought if not for Illangelo’s ominous hellscape production, which features a sparse minor key synth riff and despondent squalls of feedback while Tesfaye’s nauseating vocals are digitally pitched to slowly waver up and down an octave. The song’s lyrics go beyond misogyny and, rather, seem to simply find glee in the resulting Stockholm syndrome dependence of human suffering. “Initiation” is the most heavy-handed in that regard, but Tesfaye uses the line “don’t blame it on me…” enough times to qualify as abusive. The singer paints a world where he’s not responsible for his actions and emotions or their consequences. Unless, of course, he is. But, on “Montreal,” (which includes a chorus from the Serge Gainsbourg penned song “Laisse tomber les filles”) Abel’s conflicting persona and loneliness come into stark view as he sings, “ain’t nobody feels the way that I feel when I’m alone / So if I said that I won’t call / The lying comes natural to me.”
As lyrically sickening as much of Echoes is, tracks like the aforementioned “Montreal” or “Same Old Song” and “Next” (not to mention an excellent cover of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana”) all make the case for The Weeknd’s place next to (or above) Drake and The-Dream as radio-worthy. However, Illangelo’s intricate, submersible production on Echoes is still wholly left-field. Besides “Initiation,” “Outside” is another atypical standout, featuring clinking eastern percussion, a diabolic bass synth counter-melody, and an infectiously weird dirge-y drum loop, not to mention one of the best choruses on the tape. The proceedings here are admittedly reigned in a little from Thursday, which liked its blustery guitars and deteriorating intricacies perhaps a bit too much. One of the more vocal complaints about The Weeknd’s second mixtape was its lack of immediacy, which Echoes of Silence certainly outgrows. Woozy piano melodies, oily synths, and live drum loops coat much of the record as well as the cloudy snippets of Tesfaye’s wordless falsetto toiling tearfully in the darkened recesses of each track. But while the hook-appeal of House of Balloons hasn’t since been recaptured, it’s still the production intricacy that gives these mixtapes their infinite replayability. The-Dream, for instance, has hooks for days, but none of his songs have much impact beyond their first couple plays. The Weeknd, on the other hand, packs a staggering amount of detail, creating a syrupy universe that continues to unravel after an innumerable amount of spins.
We’re at a sort of weird standstill in The Weeknd’s career arc. Despite having gained a bit of mainstream attention for his significant role on Drake’s Take Care as well as all the favor he’s garnered with this triptych of mixtapes, Abel has remained almost as mysterious as he was nine months ago. Maybe he’s as concerned for his mystique as he admits in The Weeknd’s music, or maybe three mixtapes and a Drake album leave little time to get out the studio. Maybe we’ll fondly remember 2011 as the year The Weeknd was a self-contained universe or maybe that infamous first US performance will never get off the ground. Either way, House of Balloons, Thursday, and, now, Echoes of Silence, thus far, capture one of the most singular musical acts of the decade.