Echoes of Silence
The Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye may have just wrapped up the best year that anyone has ever had since people started keeping track of the stuff that happens to us and decided to call it “history.” The Toronto-based R&B singer released three critically acclaimed mixtapes within a few months of each other, made a ton of year-end critics’ top-ten lists, played shows with industry pals like Drake, and somehow managed to hold people’s attention by retaining his mystique. With the announcement that the mixtape trilogy will be released early this year in physical format, he’s ensured that he’ll ensnare the last remaining stretch of territory necessary for success in the music biz: sales.
The final chapter in said trilogy, Echoes of Silence, follows in the footsteps of its unique predecessors, House of Balloons and Thursday with diatribes of youthful abandon told through a pleasant falsetto and an underscore that sounds like the soundtrack to an urban jungle at 4am, when the foreboding darkness has finally driven most people to bed and provided the setting for the real good times to begin for the true savages. The Weeknd is what DJ Shadow is to techno or what The xx is to indie rock — it recognizes the sensual qualities that the night implies. It’s a knee-quivering plea for erotic asphyxiation, and it’s unsettling how easy it is to relate to. (It’s dark, is what I’m saying.) Ne-Yo will make love to you, The-Dream will fuck you, but The Weeknd might just date rape you. And that’s okay. That’s why you’re here.
House of Balloons was a coke-fueled fever dream of frightening caliber and massive production. On tracks like “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls,” pounding synth beats push at the walls of the room they occupied, while on tracks like “What You Need,” they slink around your brain’s corners, coming into your earholes with a subaquatic effect, like you’re hearing the music emanating from some distant outdoor venue as it encroaches on your space, hypnotically sucking you in. Before you know it, you’re singing along with lines like, “I’m gonna give you, girl/Point your feet/I’m the drug in your veins/Just fight through the pain.” What Thursday lacked in catchy beats and memorable hooks, it made up for with production that was simultaneously tight and expansive. Tesfaye’s moaning coos drip saccharine over urbanized psychedelia, becoming lost as they float around listlessly, meandering innocuously for five or six minutes, just before resurrecting with some verse of tense illicit sex despite all the drug-induced emotional and physical paralysis. Track after track is like that, giving R&B a sense of something that was relatively untested before The Weeknd: sprawl.
Echoes falls in some kind of strange limbo. Instead of being a best of both worlds kind of thing, it really just sounds too familiar. Like that guy you always see at parties who relives his latest sexual exploit with you every time he sees you. Whether he’s full of shit or not doesn’t matter because it’s more interesting than listening to people compare iPhone apps. But eventually, it becomes tired and desperate and you find yourself avoiding eye contact with the guy. This isn’t to imply that the Echoes of Silence is a bad listen. The opener is a competent (if comparatively dispassionate) cover of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana,” which highlights Jackson’s influence in Tesfaye’s voice — which now seems so apparent, yet went unnoticed to me before. “Initiation” is probably the best track. The words warp and wrap around each other as they travel the pitch spectrum of voice synthesis from Alvin the Chipmunk to the floating head with the pet robot from Power Rangers, becoming almost indecipherable at either end. The effect is dizzying and imposing, and when Tesfaye’s voice cracks through all the technology unfiltered it rings all the sweeter, even though the song is an implication that for a girl to get with him, she’ll have to copulate her way through his entourage first. Which is pretty G. Much of the rest feels like B-sides: comforting, reassuring, and a little boring. From the outset, The Weeknd made an impression lyrically by being so morally reprehensible that you had to love it on some base level, even if you’re not into (amazing) R&B. When the vulgarity becomes shtick, it turns into a different kind of art entirely, and must be examined as such. It’s not that I don’t believe Tesfaye when he says that he takes a lot of drugs and sleeps with a lot of women and still feels unfulfilled. I’m just not quite as interested anymore.
The Weeknd: www.the-weeknd-xo.com