the party & the afterparty

Review: The Weeknd - Echoes of Silence

Why not review an album hours after its release? Things move fast now, hype is warp-speed, so best enjoy it while its fresh. And aren't The Weeknd the most befitting subject for this kind of reaction? Abel Tesfaye's project feeds off the buzz, hate, love, etc. generated by the same dispersed online audience that he has offered up his immaculately produced, beautifully executed mixtapes to all year, and all void of a discourse save for Tesfaye's undeniably shitty Twitter account - Weeknd albums come to us as clean as the sound itself, shorn of any critical and promotional baggage - but one that is soon after filled in by amalgamation of all those little moments of reaction that his collective audience of critics and listeners (and it seems like a good chunk of these listeners are critics) have felt and expressed.

And if general opinion is anything to go by, it's that general opinion is The Weeknd is amazing - various year-end lists with House of Balloons somewhere near the top have commented that Tesfaye's was the sound that united highly diverse and otherwise antagonistic listening groups in 2011. I feel like this kind of claim needs empirical evidence - insane blog and Twitter hype doesn't count, given as a fairly specific group of listeners are the ones producing this chatter. But I'll give in to intuition and say, yes, basically anyone who loves music will find something to like or even love in The Weeknd. And for free! And lots of it. Three mixtape albums in a year - and sure, whilst admittedly there's been signs of diminishing returns throughout this 'balloon trilogy', in isolation, anyone of these three would be more than enough to recognise that here is a prodigous, precocious talent.

What anyone will also find in these three albums, if they care to listen, is I think a subtly executed but also oddly engrossing narrative, a tragic story of excess and its shadows. In this regard, if House of Balloons was the courtship - Tesfaye oiling us up with his debased but undeniably exciting ways - and Thursday was the party itself, then Echoes of Silence is the comedown, the morning after where you put some Sade on the stereo and nursing your heavy head, think about all the fucked up things you did and how your girl fucked you over last night and wonder about how soon you're going to do it all again. Each album in the trilogy has, somewhat amazingly, achieved its own specific aesthetic - from the alternating ecstasy-soaked epics and late-night slow-jams of his debut, to Thursday's faux-rock histrionics, and now Echoes of Silence, with its far more sombre tone, each song a kind of holding-pattern ("the same old song", as he sings on the track of the same name, that maybe "you don't wanna sing no more" as he admits on 'XO / The Host') of not necessarily great emotions - jealously, regret and loneliness chief among them.

The album opens with a cover of Michael Jackson's 'Dirty Diana' - an explicit acknowledgement not only of the influence MJ's vocal style seems to have had on Tesfaye (there's a couple of seconds where the two are indistinguishable) but also of Jackson's tortured, existential romanticism that he perfected in songs like this and 'Smooth Criminal'. Later, on 'Outside' he's letting a girl use the same positions she liked with her ex as he tries convincing himself that it'll be okay once he's inside her and that he's the one she wants. Bitterness, jealously, the lovelorn run-off of one-night-stands - the dull glow of heartache pervades the atmospheres of Echoes of Silence, even if Tesfaye tries convincing himself otherwise, that he "ain't scared of the fall". The other side of the coin, the feeling of waking up. The balloon has been popped.

What has unified The Weeknd's trilogy, apart from Illangelo and Doc McKinney's uniformly amazing avant-R&B production, is Tesfaye's ultra-seedy spin on the typical sex and drug signifiers of the genre, taking them into their most debauched and perverted extremes until something like a crypto-Surrealism is reached. I'm not talking the melting clocks and quirky styrups saccharine of a Dali, nah uh - what we're dealing with here is pop's version of Bataille's renegade surrealism - the kind of works which in the words of Adrian Martin "enact a bleak politics of surrealist transgression - a tearing open of bodies, and a voyage of no return into furiously alienated minds". I don't think I'm drawing a long bow here when I say that listening to The Weeknd is basically the sonic equivalent of Hans Bellmer's La Poupée series - a never-ending parade of fucked up bodies contorted through the sickening haze of the coke-gaze.

That's why 'Initiation' is both an apt and an odd track on this fairly introspective album - well, let's say, even more instropective than usual. At the pivotal point of the album, it's basically the epitome and let's also say the exhaustion point of the fucked-up-party-surrealism that Tesfaye has been developing. As the music trips from left-to-right channel, creating a sense of woozy, giddying disorientation, the narrator creepily, softly croons to a girl that she "can have it all" (his attention, affection, that is) only if she passes his "test": "to meet my boys" - now there's conjecture around the traps as to what the 'boys' Tesfaye is referring to here actually are. Is he - echoing the slightly creepy mention of "light-skinned girls, first flight from Poland" on his guest verse for Drake's 'Crew Love' - basically talking about a gang-bang? Or is he saying that, as the rest of the lyrics would suggest, that if she wants to get down, she has to be introduced to and imbibe all the various drugs that will cause the kind of vocal effects we hear throughout the song, constantly warping and winding their way up and down in pitch and speed:

Got you drinking out them white cups. Sodas. All this shit sound foreign to you. Thick smoke. Choking. Babygetfamilliarwiththeorderjustcrackitthenpouritthensipslowthentiplowmyeyesredbut mybrimlow that x o

But really, I don't think whether it's his boys or his 'boys' that Tesfaye is really referring to is the point here, it's the fact that he's fucked up enough to make this highly ambiguous comparison in the first place. The gang-bang-as-bunch-of-drugs-as-gang-bang extended analogy perfectly dilates The Weeknd's wider sketch of a hedonism that understands no moral or material bounds, where every night is a party and every orifice is a receptacle for drugs and/or genitalia, take your pick.

But there has to be consequences right? Smack bang in the middle of the album, 'Initiation' is the debauchery that surrounds the dawning sense of consequence and alienation that might be the ultimate byproduct of the kind of lifestyle House of Balloons and Thursday introduced us to. Girlfriends go missing, things go quiet, parties always end. Echoes of Silence really is a fitting conclusion to all this unbridled hedonism, and poses the question that everyone puts off thinking about whilst the good times are rolling - what's going to happen once it all comes to an end? What do I do then? And who will I have left?

I like the thrill
Nothing's gonna make me feel this real
So baby don't go home
I don't wanna spend tonight alone
Baby please, would you end your night with me?
Don't you leave me all behind
-- 'Echoes of Silence'

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