The Weeknd mixes nihilistic melancholy with star power on ‘After Hours’

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Grade: 4.0/5.0 

Abel Tesfaye is no stranger to social distance. Over the past decade, pop music’s favorite hedonistic antihero, better known as the Weeknd, has been spinning songs about loneliness, wealth and romantic isolation for the masses. In 2011, his three surprise mixtapes, known collectively as Trilogy, paved the way for his signature brand of sleek, haunting R&B. 

The Weeknd’s early releases paint a musical persona of a brooding, mysterious lothario with considerable pop star potential. With his major label releases Kiss Land, Beauty Behind the Madness and Starboy, his music entered a new phase, expanding toward a bolder, more indulgent mainstream sound. Fans were divided between the past and the present Weeknd, as Tesfaye’s music never brought both worlds together.

But the Weeknd’s newly released album, After Hours, looks inward, probing our deepest fears to find the distance between our outer and innermost selves. Following 2018’s My Dear Melancholy EP, a forgettable retread of his former musical stylings, After Hours finds Tesfaye delivering a potent mix of melancholy and undeniable star power. Here, the Weeknd has finally managed to effectively blend his vision of sad boy R&B with powerful ’80s synth pop, resulting in his best material since 2011’s House of Balloons.

After Hours documents the Weeknd at his most nihilistic, capturing both grandeur and shame as he traverses a post-breakup world with new feelings of disillusionment. All the signature Weeknd components are here: smooth vocals, overwhelming gloomy melodies, emotional drama. 

Producers Metro Boomin, Illangelo and Max Martin, frequent collaborators with Tesfaye, return on this record, joined by Kevin Parker of Tame Impala and Daniel Lopatin of Oneohtrix Point Never. This mix of talent adds unique production flourishes to create an atmosphere of intense desperation, dripped in dreamy new wave excess. With this new influence, After Hours delivers a hazy tale of self-reconciliation with sharp, cinematic flair over its 56-minute run time.

Opening track “Alone Again” finds the Weeknd desolate, unable to cope after a past relationship’s destruction. Spacious, echoey production engulfs Tesfaye’s voice as he sings “I don’t know if I can be alone again/ I don’t know if I can sleep alone again,” capturing his raw vulnerability. The liquid drum-and-bass track “Hardest to Love” continues the fallout, its urgent beat evoking extreme guilt and sorrow. Tesfaye sounds more wounded than ever.

“Faith” is a standout track, exuding high drama and new-height nihilism. The song’s references to both Prince’s “Purple Rain” and R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” powerfully intersects the Weeknd’s two worlds: His character is both a superstar and a tragic, despondent villain. The driving ’80s power pop melodies of “Blinding Lights” and “In Your Eyes” give the album a charismatically nostalgic edge — even the latter track’s corny saxophone solo can be forgiven. This unapologetic fearlessness allows After Hours to cover up its small missteps. These songs add color to the record’s sonic palette, building upon a growing sense of freshness amid so many of the Weeknd’s familiar elements. 

The moody “Snowchild” reflects on Tesfaye’s path to stardom, calling on his past to pave new ground. On House of Balloons highlight “The Morning,” he boasts that “Cali is the mission,” eyes set on glamor and success. “Snowchild” highlights the Weeknd’s newfound resignation with the tragic glitz of a materialistic lifestyle in the lyrics “Cali was the mission, but now a n—- leaving.” Tesfaye’s vocals leave him far removed from his accomplishments, his sober indifference pushing him a mountaintop away. This introspective mode is where After Hours operates best.

After all this time, the Weeknd has still maintained some consistency: His music is still morose, his hooks are still catchy, his star power is still irresistible. After Hours, his most focused project in nine years, effectively captures loneliness with the widescreen allure he’s always been just shy of with his other major label releases. The album serves as a reconciliation of old relationships with the partners and the music of his past — a compelling balancing act of splendor and devastation fitting for our modern times.

Contact Vincent Tran at [email protected].