Pop music aficionados awoke Friday morning to the sleek disco moves, laserlike synths, silky slow jams, serene soliloquies and ‘80s electro pop of Dawn FM, the new album from Canadian superstar the Weeknd. At turns euphoric, sentimental and gloomy, it’s a follow-up to his 2020 blockbuster LP After Hours and its record-breaking single Blinding Lights.
Vaguely conceptual, the record features periodic voice-overs from Canadian comedian Jim Carrey in the role of a smooth-voiced, purgatorial DJ on hand to guide the listener through the “painless transition” to an afterlife. “You’ve been in the dark for way too long,” Carrey says. “It’s time to walk into the light.”
In a recent interview with Billboard magazine, the Weeknd (real name Abel Tesfaye) likened purgatory and the 16-track album to being stuck in traffic and listening to the car radio as one waits to make it to the bliss and light at the end of a tunnel.
The album’s second cut (and first proper song) is Gasoline, a thumping dance floor number that finds the Weeknd adopting a posh British accent. Dawn is the philosophical part of the day and it is a melancholy hour. Our protagonist has taken drugs, is struggling to breathe and is deep into existential dread, obsessing over “aftermaths, apocalypse and hopelessness.”
On How Do I Make You Love Me?, he seeks approval and an eternal love – from a god or a girlfriend, take your pick. Emotionally the Weeknd is jealous (Is There Someone Else?), morose (Less Than Zero) and melodramatic (”I can’t take another heartbreak or I’ll end it all,” he vows on Don’t Break My Heart).
For the sonically minimalist album, the Weeknd’s chief collaborator is American producer Daniel Lopatin. The Weeknd was credited as an executive producer on Lopatin’s luxurious electropop LP from 2020, Magic Oneohtrix Point Never, which, like Dawn FM, employed a thematic radio aesthetic.
Also receiving writer-production credits on Dawn FM are, among others, Max Martin and Swedish House Mafia. Legendary producer Quincy Jones makes a weird appearance.
As Thursday turned to Friday, the Weeknd hosted a live-streamed listening party at midnight to celebrate the record’s release. Manning a DJ booth and wearing prosthetics and makeup that duplicated his funky grandfather look on the album cover, he played all of Dawn FM, including the following hits, misses and curious moments:
Shout-out to a Canadian scream queen: On the yacht-rocking ballad Here We Go … Again (with help from rapper Tyler, the Creator), the Weeknd is a blowhard but in a mellow and melodious way. He references his pop-chart success and his Super Bowl halftime performance from a year ago, while boasting about an unnamed girlfriend who apparently appreciated the Weeknd’s pillow-time skills: “I loved her right, made her scream like Neve Campbell,” a reference to the Scream horror-film actress.
Best song: Though Dawn FM’s first single was Take My Breath, the album’s earworm is Less Than Zero. A sweetly escalating keyboard motif is as smooth as ABBA’s silk pyjamas, and the chorus is poised for its summer-song 2022 moment.
Quincy Jones and the ghost of Michael Jackson: I feel like the Weeknd has been trying to write something as pop-perfect as Michael Jackson’s Rock With You his whole career. He doesn’t manage it on Dawn FM, though Sacrifice has a certain Thriller vibe. Perhaps bringing in Jackson producer Jones was an attempt to crack the code, but the result is the strange A Tale by Quincy, which involves a story about Jones’s mentally ill mother and an evil stepmother.
Of all things, Austrian poetry influences: The sci-fi interlude Every Angel is Terrifying includes a radio commercial spot, a cameo by film director Josh Safdie and an intense passage lifted from 20th-century modernist poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s The First Elegy that equates beauty with terror.
Jim Carrey’s spiritual advice: The album concludes with Phantom Regret by Jim, the third of three orations from Carrey. The actor is a Los Angeles neighbour of the Weeknd and a fellow former citizen of Scarborough, Ont. After referencing the T.Rex song Bang a Gong (Get it On), Carrey sermonizes: “Train your soul to align, and dance till you find that divine boogaloo.”
Sign up for The Globe’s arts and lifestyle newsletters for more news, columns and advice in your inbox.