Album review: The Weeknd breaks free from limbo to embrace a new day with ‘Dawn FM’
“Dawn FM” marks The Weeknd’s fifth studio album and a further dive into the world of Abel Tesfaye’s alter ego. (Courtesy of Republic Records)
By Francis Moon
Jan. 7, 2022 5:24 p.m.
This post was updated Jan. 9 at 9:41 p.m.
Every sunset brings the promise of a new dawn.
With his fifth studio album, “Dawn FM,” The Weeknd has found the light at the end of the tunnel. The 16-track record builds off the 2020 “After Hours” introduction of the singer’s individualistic mix of modern pop, R&B and new wave music as he brings listeners along with his escape from a metaphorical purgatory of suffering and heartache while attempting to detach from his dissolute history. In another concept album, this time with cover art featuring an aged version of himself, Abel Tesfaye attempts to move past the cycle of pain projected in his previous projects that has come to define his alter ego as The Weeknd – and in doing so, has added another masterpiece to his saga.
Continuing with the hedonistic character that the Toronto singer has built throughout his first four albums, “Dawn FM” begins with a radio voice-over from actor Jim Carrey uttering, “It’s time to walk into the light / and accept your fate with open arms.” Carrey’s voice-over is scattered throughout the album and the actor’s inclusion as the record’s narrator induces a late-night drive vibe while producing a feeling that can be described as a druglike high for the listener.
Carrey also introduces the overarching radio concept featuring 103.5 Dawn FM, which symbolizes the long path The Weeknd has taken to overcome his pain and darkness. The album is built on the comparison of purgatory to being trapped in traffic in a tunnel, with nothing to listen to but this imaginary radio station.
The Weeknd immediately delves into a sense of hopefulness with an electronically deepened voice supported by a fast-paced, robo-funk beat before he sings about his relationships and suffering in the second track, “Gasoline.” Quickly, the song morphs to resemble the dark persona of Tesfaye’s alter ego, chanting in a gradually deeper and softer tone, “I know there’s nothing after this / … oh baby please just hold me close / Make me believe there’s more to live.” The Weeknd displays a willingness to intersperse his mellow, ’80s R&B style with fresh, cheerful vocals and production that show off his chest voice.
Contrary to the self-indulgence and lust that defined projects such as 2018’s “My Dear Melancholy,” this album paints a picture of guidance and redemption with the help of love as The Weeknd attempts to overcome past addictions and temptations. In “Sacrifice,” a strident beat featuring an electric guitar is used to paint the upward path The Weeknd is on, and the presence of audibly booming bass counters the nihilistic tone from earlier while successfully transitioning into the next phase of the project.
The second half of the album shifts from upbeat electric music to a slower-paced, relaxing mood featuring the gentle timbre of the guitar, segueing into tracks like “Here We Go … Again,” which features The Weeknd fighting through the addictions and temptations of his past while displaying newfound pragmatism and emotional growth. The incorporation of a verse from the deep-toned Tyler, The Creator to contrast The Weeknd’s distinctly light and velvety voice highlights the new, softer side of his persona that is willing to take risks to change for the better.
Commencing the final quarter of the album, “Every Angel Is Terrifying” contains an interlude in the form of a radio advertisement, riddled with futuristic, bouncy music that overlays a voice-over inviting listeners to the afterlife before shifting to the final phase of the album, which begins with “Don’t Break My Heart.” The track masterfully mixes in melancholy lyrics and an upbeat melody to encapsulate The Weeknd’s conflicting thoughts about love all the while maintaining a disco-R&B feel despite the soft tones.
As the record comes to a close, The Weeknd has an out-of-body experience with a wide array of groovy yet emotional ballads. He takes his fans along for the ride through mixes of smooth and abrupt transitions to demonstrate his emotional narrative arc. Tesfaye showcases his lush vocal range more than ever with “Dawn FM,” demonstrating his steady improvement as an artist by putting out yet another album filled with hits. But even so, the album is not without its shortcomings, as the concept occasionally overpowers the individual songs, many of which are shorter with more interludes interspersed than the Weeknd’s past singles.
Ultimately, the highlight of the record is its penultimate track, “Less Than Zero,” which, from its chorus, takes the claim as the catchiest tune of the project while encapsulating the spiritual journey of “Dawn FM.” In the song, The Weeknd finally admits that “I try to fight it / But I’d rather be free,” referencing the demons of his past.
And after years of fighting, Tesfaye’s alter ego as the Weeknd has finally broken free.