The Weeknd fuses synthpop bliss with sci-fi dread on new concept album ‘Dawn FM’ (review)
In the past decade, The Weeknd went from a mysterious alt-R&B pioneer who samples Beach House, Cocteau Twins and Siouxsie and the Banshees to a pop superstar, and he became a rare modern artist with enough larger-than-life singles to warrant a greatest hits album at the peak of his career. Even if you haven't paid close attention to The Weeknd's discography, you've probably succumbed to the power of his irresistible chart-toppers, which his last three albums have all produced at least one of. Sometimes his singles do overshadow his albums, but that doesn't mean he's a "singles artist"; he's still very much in the business of making capital-A albums, and that's exactly what Dawn FM is. It's a concept album that The Weeknd wrote during a period of depression during the 2020 pandemic; looking for an escape, he imagined a fantasy world where everyone is stuck in traffic, but there's a light at the end of the tunnel, and the only radio station available is the imaginary Dawn FM, which guides you towards the light. It plays out like a psychological sci-fi drama, and the radio DJ narrating the whole thing is none other than Jim Carrey, whose roles in The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind come to mind when listening to his anxiety-inducing interjections on Dawn FM, which come spliced in between The Weeknd's blissful pop and fake commercial jingles.
The album was executive produced by Oneohtrix Point Never (who has become a frequent Weeknd collaborator in recent years) and mainstream pop genius Max Martin (ditto), and OPN and Max also handled the bulk of the production on the album, alongside contributions from a few others including Calvin Harris ("I Heard You're Married"), Swedish House Mafia ("Sacrifice"), and The Beach Boys' Bruce Johnston ("Here We Go... Again," which Bruce also sings backup on). Tyler, the Creator and Lil Wayne also show up for rapped guest verses on "Here We Go... Again" and "I Heard You're Married," respectively, and Quincy Jones narrates a spoken word track. "Here We Go... Again" has hints of The Weeknd's early alt-R&B sound, but for the most part, Dawn FM continues down the retrofuturistic '80s pop path that began on 2020's After Hours. The first single for the album was the recently released "Take My Breath," which was yet another example of The Weeknd's ability to churn out world-conquering singles, and it's not the only magical moment on Dawn FM. An even better song is "Less Than Zero," the album's last proper song before Jim Carrey's spoken word coda, a Max Martin-aided jangly synthpop anthem that deserves to be The Weeknd's next single. Other similarly immediate moments come in the form of the OPN-assisted "Out of Time" and the OPN/Max-assisted "Don't Break My Heart," and the Calvin Harris-produced synth-funk of "I Heard You're Married" and the skittering electronics of "Is There Someone Else?" provide their own sense of euphoria. Balancing out the sugar-coated hooks, some of the tracks -- especially those produced by OPN -- favor something more abstract and eerie. The album might be intended as some sort of escapism, but it also can't shake the feeling that there's still something out there to escape from. It's ecstasy with an underlying sense of dread.