Album Review: The Weeknd – Dawn FM

[XO / Republic; 2022]

It’s been a decade since the melancholic musical madness of The Weeknd’s first three critically acclaimed mixtapes had arrived in their abyssal-black packaging. Repackaged, repurposed and re-released as a commercial album entitled Trilogy, The Weeknd had officially arrived as his signature depressive drug-riddled croons crept towards every corner of North America, becoming an artistic sensation in the process. 

A lot has changed for the Canadian-based crooner since then: the artist legally known as Abel Tesfaye has performed at the Super Bowl, won an abundance of Grammys, and has released four studio albums – all of which have noticeably shifted further and further away from the murky “snow” songs fans fell in love with him for, with the most significant shifts found on 2016’s overly-bloated Starboy and the 2020 hit album After Hours. Of course, certain glimpses of Trilogy-era Tesfaye exist throughout this four-album run. Still, the attempts felt like the singer cosplaying as himself, an artist trying to reach for a version of himself that he had grown too distant from, both musically and personally.

But with Dawn FM, The Weeknd may have found the perfect meshing of a now-distant world of authentic addiction anthems and a world of punchy pop perfection, linking the two with a bridge of light. 

What fans loved about the iconic Trilogy tapes were the mysteriously closed-off yet revealingly toxic songs about The Weeknd’s usual one-night stands with women of a certain ilk. At the same time, he chanted lyrics about his not-so-secret drug use. As a result, his music came off feeling like the underbelly of R&B, a counterculture to pop and a sinful alternative to what listeners came to expect from traditional R&B singers at the time.

With Dawn FM, The Weeknd’s fifth studio album, listeners aren’t treated with a Trilogy clone, no, but are instead offered a rare moment of clarity; a thematic album set in the confines of purgatory with intentions set on righting the wrongs of his addiction that he has so proudly sung about since the beginning of his career.

As if serving as a hint to what we could expect on his fifth album, Tesfaye revealed to readers in a recent interview with GQ that he had given up taking drugs. “Drugs were a crutch. It was me thinking that I needed it. And not doing the work to figure out how not to need it,” The Weeknd said. “And I’ve spent the last few years realizing that and thanking God that I don’t need it.” 

Featuring narration by Jim Carrey, an interlude by Quincy Jones, and the only two musical features in Lil Wayne and Tyler, the Creator, Dawn FM is a banger. It’s such a banger that you probably wouldn’t even realize that each piece of this album – from the cheesy 80s radio bits to the murky otherworldly atmosphere, the strangely therapeutic yet omnipresent essence of purgatory radio host Carrey, and the not so apparent hits of light trickled through the music’s gloomy surfaces – is The Weeknd attempting to make peace with the sins that currently have him, or a version of him, floating in limbo throughout the album. 

The second track of the album, “Gasoline”, paints a picture of the Toronto native proclaiming his appreciation for his lover who won’t let him self-destruct through his drug use as he sings “I know you won’t let me OD.” This serves as a change in perspective from The Weeknd that we last heard on After Hours, where the song “Faith” in particular carried a much darker view on his addiction, with him singing “but if I OD, I want you to OD right beside me / I want you to follow right behind me / I want you to hold me while I’m smiling / While I’m dying.”

This personal progress from After Hours to Dawn FM is crucial to understanding the essence of what Dawn FM is all about: forgiving oneself and letting go of past regrets. “A Tale By Quincy” doubles down on this theme of past regrets as he the legend takes a trip down memory lane, speaking on his relationship with his mother and how that had a direct impact on how he romantically treated lovers throughout his life as he would “cut them off” if they got too close. Like The Weeknd, Jones attempts to make peace with these events and work past the traumas to heal. 

The Weeknd speaks on infidelity in the spacious groove number “I Heard You’re Married” featuring Lil Wayne, as he glides through purgatory recounting a woman who, well, is married and wasn’t truthful about the ordeal. “Out of Time” and “Sacrifice” find the Toronto crooner leaning directly into the not-so-subtle Michael Jackson influence as the funky, electric, and infectious musical composition catapults the listener to a bygone era. The results are stellar as The Weeknd doesn’t come off as a stale imitation of Jackson’s greatness but more so a student of pop music who clearly paid attention in class. Both tracks – riddled with allusions of regret, the afterlife, and narratives of After Hours – are sure to become some of 2022’s biggest songs.

“Less Than Zero” sounds like a celebration of sorts; the prom-pop number quite literally steps in the name of love (ew) as the singer rejoices in conquering his addiction and other elements of his past self. Or, we thought. On closer inspection, we begin to realize that the idea of The Weeknd moving past his past self and regrets may have failed. With lyrics like “Remember I was your hero, yeah / I’d wear your heart like a symbol / I couldn’t save you from my darkest truth of all / I know / I’ll always be less than zero,” The Weeknd states that he tried to change who he was but – and this may be his “darkest truth” – he couldn’t do it. 

Through and through, Dawn FM is not just a stellar meditation on mortality, regrets, and the idea of the afterlife, but also the first home run album from The Weeknd. Sonically and thematically, the album delivers with a complete thought with the most cohesive musical composition/production since the days of Trilogy. Yes, The Weeknd has jumped even deeper into pop territory with Dawn FM, but it seems he may have finally found his voice in that genre and, based on the material here, he will have much more to say with his future projects. Admittedly, The Weeknd is light years away from the sounds of Trilogy and a lot closer to the sounds of After Hours and Starboy, but one thing is for sure: this album is much closer to excellence than his last offerings.