In her poem My Muse, Stevie Smith asks “why does my muse only speak when she is unhappy? / She does not, I only listen when I am unhappy.” Could this be true also for the Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye? Maybe the maker of this and two previous digital albums ( House of Balloons and Thursday) doesn’t waste his happy moods on the work of making music. Certainly his muse speaks in a very dark and even miserable way, at least when Tesfaye is listening.
Like its two predecessors, this is a collection of nocturnes, about the nasty things that go down in the hours when the happy world sleeps in peace. These coldly delicate songs describe the exact moments at which desire and disgust become indistinguishable. There are many characters on the album, all of them hungry for something, each of them carrying their isolation like a bag of something filthy that must be discarded but can never be put down.
Echoes of Silence confirms that the truest identity we can ascribe to Tesfaye (who doesn’t give interviews and has only done one public performance) is that he’s a storyteller who wants his night-world tales to get under our skin. His favourite gambit is to wrap his sweet, light tenor around a monologue that aims to manipulate or degrade some woman.
XO and Initiation are addressed to women whose only power is to act as the catalyst for a fantasy that will run them over like a car speeding through the night. The weightless pretty sound of Tesfaye’s voice, slicked and smoothed by Auto-Tune, bobs like a balloon over these sordid sexual tableaux. Is he telling a fiction, or quoting from his diary? The question nags at you, and makes you listen for clues.
In Outside, our anti-hero zeroes in on a woman who’s busted-up about being left by another man. He offers to fill that void, to be the other guy for a night, even to copy his moves: “if you pretend, then girl, I’ll pretend.” In Next, he addresses a stripper who seems impressed to be dancing for the man whose music is playing; his scorn is her tip.
The album opens with a cover of Michael Jackson’s Dirty Diana, a song about a groupie that shows that the wide river of R&B had nasty things floating in it long before Tesfaye came along. Montreal opens with a reminiscence of Serge Gainsbourg’s Laisse tomber les filles, the French text of which means “forget the girls before they drop you.” The pain of not doing so drives Same Old Song, about a former flame who never believed in our man till he became a success, and now dials him up over a beat as solemn as a funeral march.
The resonant synthetic sound-world of Echoes of Silence is very similar to that of Tesfaye’s previous discs. When a real piano enters in the penultimate track, and comes on even more strongly in the closing title song, it feels like an exotic import. In that final song, the clammy bravado of earlier tunes evaporates, the first-person lyric turns fragile, and the guy begs the girl not to leave him alone for the night: “don’t you leave my little life.” Tesfaye, for whom all thrills seem ultimately hollow, hands us the cliché pleasure of seeing this arch-heel at the feet of poetic justice, curled up in the fetal position.
Echoes of Silence can be downloaded for free at the-weeknd.com.
Echoes of Silence
- The Weeknd
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