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Abel Tesfaye writes and performs as The Weeknd.
Abel Tesfaye writes and performs as The Weeknd.

Music

A deeply atmospheric mixtape from the Weeknd Add to ...

Thursday The Weeknd (Independent)

This nine-song mixtape was released online on a Thursday, and by that Friday had been downloaded by some 180,000 people. Abel Tesfaye, who writes and performs as the Weeknd, may have had reason to wonder whether he shouldn't have asked a few dollars for his music, instead of giving it away for free.

Tesfaye has come this way before, in March, when his House of Balloons – another online freebie – made the elusive Toronto singer a celebrity in the global underground. The album won a place on the Polaris Prize shortlist in July, a couple of weeks before Tesfaye gave his first public concert.

Thursday is said to be the second instalment in a mixtape trilogy; the last is due this fall. Like House of Balloons, the new collection is deeply atmospheric. The clock is stuck at 4 a.m., the hour when the biggest lies are told and the ugliest truths emerge. The songs are about having gone too far with just about everything, and feeling it all curdle on the inside, though sometimes memory trumps the chilled-out emotional residue. If there's a persona here to match the songs' unified texture and nearly unvarying mood, it's a guy for whom the top-of-mind subjects at the bleakest hour of the night are the highs and lows of using and being used, in every sense.

Tesfaye's weightless, nearly colourless voice is the perfect vehicle for this kind of thing: He's a bleached-out soul singer trapped in a place with no soul. He sounds like he could take that voice anywhere he likes, but he's really not going anywhere. His art as a singer is mostly about spinning high delicate roulades over a relatively static base. A few feints in the direction of Middle Eastern music are not misplaced.

It's hard to point to anything much in the way of a tune on this record, but it's bursting with melody – decorative melody, that spins beautifully around an immobile axis. The voice and the instrumentals string out new lines of counterpoint, layering up and paring down, as the music winds its leisurely way to nowhere. Having figured out how to do one thing really well, Tesfaye does it again and again. There's a cold logic here: The songs are about excess, so why not make the music seethe with an excess of melodic variants? The craft is impressive, especially if you only listen to a song or two. In quantity, I find them monotonous, in tone and method.

As with many artists who put so much effort into endless elaboration, Tesfaye can sound obsessive and self-absorbed, which again makes sense for the character he’s representing. His most direct come-on line is: “Don't make me make you fall in love with a nigga like me” – a cat's cradle of narcissistic desire and faux self-loathing.

In The Life of the Party, a grim cabaret stomp, his panting vocals manage to sound aroused and detached at the same time. “I can't feel a damn thing,” he sings in The Zone, just before Drake appears for a rap cameo that makes you realize, by its relatively earthy diction, how otherworldly the whole Weeknd sound image is. One exception: The Birds, Part 1, in which the canned drum beats of other tracks give way to big drums beating a bold tattoo, as if striking up a march to the scaffold of the heart. Another: Heaven or Las Vegas, a reggae-flavoured, two-chord vamp that suddenly comes alive when the bass kicks out a robust new rhythm at the end of the verse. If I had to chose, I'd say that was the Vegas part.

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