The album's best moments provide enough blinding light to counter the increasingly enveloping gloom of 2022.
the weeknd dawn fm
'Dawn FM' finds the Weeknd showcasing his versatility

Since its inception over a decade ago, the Weeknd has been a high-concept project. In the beginning, Abel Tesfaye shrouded himself and his music in mystery and reverb. When his cult-favorite status turned into global superstardom, he dropped the veil a bit, and his songs became more radio-ready, with hitmakers like Daft Punk and Max Martin helping shape Tesfaye's self-loathing lyricism and acrobatic voice into hooky, danceable pop records.

The first portion of his journey culminated in February 2021, with a headlining appearance at the Super Bowl that honored his megahits like the urgent "Blinding Lights," while also nodding toward the past with a snippet of the quasi-title track from his first mixtape, 2011's House of Balloons. Now, he's returned with Dawn FM, his first full-length since 2020's After Hours.  

Structured as if tuning into a radio station during the hours right before sunrise, Dawn FM is a celebration of the synth, blending the electro-R&B that's made the Weeknd a playlist staple with sounds borrowed from chilly New Wave, club-ready freestyle, and gooey soft-synth rock, as well as his own acid-tipped worldview. The album also doubles as a testament to his own superstardom, wrangling contributions from pop royalty like Martin, Quincy Jones, and longtime Beach Boy Brian Johnston along with members of his own cohort including Daniel Lopatin (also known as electro-experimentalist Oneohtrix Point Never). Fellow Canadian Jim Carrey is the album's guiding light, narrating increasingly existential interludes and serving as the phantom radio station's DJ, while Josh Safdie, who co-directed the Weeknd in 2019's anxiety-ridden Uncut Gems, mocks film critics with a one-liner on the claustrophobic "Every Angel Is Terrifying."  

Dawn FM finds the Weeknd showcasing his versatility; the first time his voice is heard, on the percolating "Gasoline," it's affecting the sort of exaggerated diction that was common in British import singles of the early '80s. Over the course of the album, his voice bends around and soars over the electronics provided by his collaborators, which summon images of closed-for-business city streets, ice-tipped trees, and headlight-illuminated landscapes. The watery keyboards and heaven-sent backing vocals of "Here We Go… Again" sound straight out of a 1988 American Top 40 rerun, although any Winwood- and Hornsby-recalling romanticism is quickly punctured by Tyler, the Creator chanting "you gonna sign this prenup" at the climax of his verse.

Placing the Weeknd in the context of a pop radio station is a savvy move, although it's worth noting that last year, Oneohtrix Point Never released his own radio-themed opus, Magic Oneohtrix Point Never, which could be seen as a left-of-the-dial companion piece to Dawn FM. On Dawn, 0PN's experimentation is hinted at here and there, but what really hits home is the way that he and the Weeknd's collective savvy can make killer pop cuts — the glossed-up soul ballad "Out of Time," the minimalist "Don't Break My Heart," the glittering, relatively lovelorn "Starry Eyes" — that will win over even the most fervent doubters.

While its title implies that Dawn FM is the Weeknd's attempt to showcase the light that inevitably comes after darkness, the project's lyrical worldview often gets in the way of its mission, with the zero-sum nature of modern romance persisting as a theme. Even the penultimate track "Less Than Zero," which echoes the triumphant anthems that closed teen flicks of four decades ago, finds him dealing with self-loathing following a breakup. At times, the ruminations on the porous line between friendship and romance land with a thud. ("You don't wanna have sex as friends no more," he wails again and again on the stark "Best Friends.") However, putting them in the late-night drive context makes them work a little better — these are the thoughts racing through a tormented head as the car attached to it zooms down desolate highways, the radio acting as anguish's only companion. In the end, Dawn FM finds the Weeknd wrestling with his desires, whether for sex, love, or power, in a way that bears out the "I'm a nihilist" declaration of "Gasoline."      

Still, Dawn FM's sonics are arresting enough to put aside any concerns about lyrical existentialism and surrender to the power of its star-studded hooks and world-dominating synths. Or, as Carrey intones on the album's final track, "You gotta unwind your mind, train your soul to align/And dance 'til you find that divine boogaloo." Dawn FM might be just shy of summoning the truly divine, but its best moments provide enough blinding light to counter the increasingly enveloping gloom of 2022. Grade: B+

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