It will forever be the curse of an artist for their past and present selves to be compared, scrutinized and criticized – have they sold out? Have they gotten better? Have they gotten worse? Will they ever make an album like their One Classic?
The Weeknd has been subject to these appraisals for years now. The trilogy of mixtapes that introduced him to the world is widely considered essential R&B, a unique voice that no one has since matched – not even Abel himself. The hazy darkness that was his own in those early days was dispersed by pop glimmer, and on last listen (looking at you, Starboy) seemed to have completely been undercut by his grandiose ambitions. The somber tones came off more as a prop than the heart of the music.
When the rumours of new Weeknd music surfaced, that apparently sounded like the old him, the tremulous excitement set in. This could just be a marketing ploy – the new Weeknd was here to stay, right? The old Weeknd was gone.
As it turns out, not quite.
The Weeknd’s music has largely been a story of his hedonistic tendencies causing him to fuck up any chance at love. We’ve been hearing evolving forms of this from the heady days of House of Balloons to the emotionally – and sonically – distant Starboy. What sets My Dear Melancholy apart from these extremes is a raw vulnerability we have not heard from Abel before, at least not without being offset by a lot of sex and intoxicants.
While Tesfaye has been blunt about his misadventures in romance before, there is a subtle but significant shift here in the lyrical focus. While he previously seemed to revel in his demons, self-destructive as they may be, he barely acknowledged the emotional toll it was taking on him.
The floodgates have well and truly been opened on My Dear Melancholy. From the searing opener, Call Out My Name, the tone is set for The Weeknd to hollow himself out – literally, if the ferocious passion in his singing is anything to go by. The pain is evident in the haunting atmosphere of the EP. The lyrics are some of his bleakest, with some pretty visceral imagery – sample “I almost cut a piece of myself for your life,” “I’m on the edge of something breaking.” A key difference lies in the subject of the songs – while past works focused on Abel, with the women being mere props, on this EP the specific women have a clearly emotional relationship with Abel, which lends more weight to his melancholy. There has perhaps not been a line as sentimental as “I don’t wanna wake up/
If you ain’t layin’ next to me” in Tesfaye’s discography. Nor perhaps a verse as vulnerable as the opening verse on I Was Never There (“What makes a grown man wanna cry?…”). Unlike on defining past songs like Wicked Games, where he glorifies his infidelity, Abel here is resigned to the pointlessness of his mindless promiscuity and substance use ( “And I’ma fuck the pain away, and I know I’ll be okay”, sung noncommittally).
We saw traces of this side to Abel on True Colors off Starboy. He sang his heart out, and then wore it on his sleeve. But there was a glimmer of neon light then. On My Dear Melancholy, for better or worse, that glow is gone. It’s not been extinguished, as much as inverted. The spaces once filled with light have been desaturated, and only the sepia dark remains. Here, The Weeknd lurks, taking shot after shot, letting the tears run cold. It’s not a happy place, but it’d be foolish to pretend we don’t need it.