Those who loved The Weeknd’s first releases were probably attracted to his mysterious appeal. In a world obsessed and distorted by the bright lights of fame, it was refreshing to see a musician take himself out of the spotlight and instead let an undoubtedly incredible talent do all the talking.
The chilling quality of songs such as Wicked Games and Loft Music marked an eye-opening vulnerability, and this won humble Abel Tesfaye his early fanbase. Despite House of Balloons releasing to critical acclaim and Trilogy charting at number four on the Billboard 200, widespread recognition didn’t come until his breakout hit Earned It for the Fifty Shades soundtrack. Although infectiously catchy, it lacked the affecting bitterness of The Weeknd’s earlier tracks, and subsequent albums became increasingly pop-oriented.
However, original fans can rejoice at the sound of The Weeknd’s latest project. The very name of My Dear Melancholy, shows a rediscovered maturity and a return to the murky darkness from which he first emerged, after the recent glitz of the commercial Starboy. Though the first track listed, Call Out My Name, is reminiscent of the hit Earned It that it samples, the ‘old Abel’ mood is evident in his clear channelling of pain through the lyrics.
Try Me continues in a similar vein, imitating most of the early Trilogy tracks in establishing a haunting intro and outro in the use of echoes. While the visuals for the first two tracks invoke much of the red and yellow colour symbolism of Starboy, the hazy viewpoint is disturbing and there is an afterparty-esque ambience in both. The videos allow an insight into his solitude behind the façade and the iPhone-camera feel of it is refreshingly intimate.
Wasted Times acts as a self-declared breakup anthem, if the Twitter response was anything to go by, especially if the allusions that litter this song are considered in light of his relationships with Bella Hadid and, more recently, Selena Gomez. Evocative of a Craig David-style vibe, with any other (remotely happy) lyricset, this would make a surefire bop, but The Weeknd’s unsettling vocals quickly depress any optimism.
Continuing through the tracklist, I Was Never There is an instant declaration of vulnerability and the presence of Yeezus collaborator Gesaffelstein is obvious: piercing sirens detract from otherwise-repetitive lyrics and the track is foggy yet atmospheric from the outside. A Weeknd-trademark inversion halfway through introduces a second movement which delicately floats, as in House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls.
While Hurt You bears striking resemblance to hits of Abel’s more recent fame, with a sample of Starboy being just-distinguishable, the sexually-charged lyrics are more closely aligned with The Weeknd’s early remix repertoire, including Drunk In Love and Or Nah.
The outgoing track, Privilege, sounds the most like his early tracks composed in a fogged and drug-fuelled stupor under the XO’TWOD tagline. It offers a perspective similar to that of the Trilogy Eps: a hazy Abel refuses emotional dependence on lovers and instead turns to substances to numb any pain. A promise that Abel will “be back to [his] old ways” epitomises the message of My Dear Melancholy,. The lack of promotion for this project is in-line with his original faceless obscurity and suggests some discomfort with the extent to which his life became public in a matter of months.
As someone who appreciated the uniqueness of The Weeknd’s early distinctiveness, this release is exciting and, despite its liminality in that awkward state between EP and album, it’s a welcome move away from the exhausted sound of Starboy. The lyrics may still be repetitive, but the return of his sweet falsetto tones juxtaposed with their gritty material subverts his recent conformity to the constraints of mainstream popular music and even R&B standards.