Four years on from his triple-platinum masterpiece, the Starboy has made a deal with the twilight zone - The Weeknd's After Hours is a juxtaposition of his trademark seductive melancholy with genre-blending 80s.
Breaking records for most pre-adds on Apple Music, anticipation was in overreach for Abel Tesfaye's latest chapter: the era visually defined by his Ferrari-red jacket and broken nose. From December releases Heartless and Blinding Lights, a narrative began to unfold on the West Coast, fronted by a character whose night out just kept getting worse. Although he's never been short of a storyline in any of his accompanying videos, especially since mainstream success (think Beauty Behind the Madness (2015) and Starboy (2016)), the build-up to After Hours was astute in detail. We've been immersed in the Sin City lights, the smoke-filled bars, the transcendental intoxication – a night that never seemed to end. There was no question that this chapter was taking a hint from a past aesthetic, which in millennial hindsight appears overindulgent and debauched: but the music it birthed? It's unparalleled in its influence.
Alone Again is a tainted and powerful overture. Tesfaye lures us with gradual layering of sonic melodies, cinematic synth and haunting vocals, accompanied by a familiar gritty beat; we're sunk into silence before Too Late begins. Piercing percussion is stabilised by sparkling 80s melodies – a trend throughout the album's duration – and comes to a distorting end. After an enigmatic, rising intro, Hardest to Love has Tesfaye's confessions of toxicity reside over delicate drum n' bass percussion, before fading into angelic ballad Scared to Live. It's thudding and profound, with a charming touch of Elton John’s Your Song.
Between the episodes of heartache, Tesfaye is ceaseless in projecting his backstory through his music, whilst still managing to remain discreet. The memoirs in Snowchild unfold quite cinematically, and with a few seconds between bars to breathe, the sound of birds and laughter give us a glimpse of daylight. But this is the only daylit moment Tesfaye allows us; After Hours is consistent in every aspect.
'We've been immersed in the Sin City lights, the smoke-filled bars, the transcendental intoxication – a night that never seemed to end'.
Escape From LA is the closest we get to a Weeknd from the past, and I mean the past past. His gentle wane, caressed by distant moans and a flitting, lo-fi beat serve as a murky reminder of Trilogy and Kissland. Following (what I'm convinced is) a slowed and reverbed excerpt from Starboy's Party Monster, we’re almost caught off guard as the track collapses into a scene of secrecy and lust, backdropped by LA falsity.
Sat in its new context between Escape From LA and Faith, Heartless is the turning moment in this chapter. When first reviewed as a single, the lyrics appeared shameless and free – a projection of blatant misbehaviour and overconsumption. After his dismissal of LA, and its women who apparently 'all look the same' in the previous track, Heartless reverts his subdued manner, and reapplies his disguise. Like he admits, he's back to his old ways in this one.
Faith is as intoxicating as the substances he lists – a psychotic high and a jarring, yet brief, comedown before we're propelled into the chart spectacle, Blinding Lights. Each track is dissolved by a patient, enigmatic outro, creating seamless transitions that sharpen the album's every corner, and Faith is no different. The outgoing lyrics somewhat give Blinding Lights its own introduction (‘I ended up in the back of a flashing car / with the city shining on my face / the lights are blinding me again’), bringing it a new lease of life.
In Your Eyes and Save Your Tears are glimmering jewels against the sombre background, the former's piercing saxophone reminiscent of Gerry Rafferty's Baker Street, and both hold an infectious hook that will be swirling in your brain for hours. In Your Eyes is the latest track to be accompanied by an era-appropriate mini-movie: I won't give spoilers, but Psycho is the vibe (minus the shower). Remaining esoteric as ever, the hypnotic interlude Repeat After Me brings words for a past love, albeit self-assured and crude.
It's well worth the wait for the penultimate title track, After Hours. Released as a single last month, it satisfied the gap in melancholy of his December releases. A six-minute-long, crooning heartache which progresses from his subdued haunting falsetto into a gut-wrenching crescendo, the sound of crunching glass underfoot adds a chilling touch of ASMR; it encapsulates a vision of closing time, of aftermath and regret. Reflecting on this, there's a synesthetic quality to After Hours as a whole, a real sense that this is the sound, the look and feel of the space between midnight and sunrise.
'The shadowy world he's created in Chapter 6 is foregrounded with such an immersive narrative, that even he himself appears consumed by the red-jacketed character he has created'.
There's an ever-gradual deceleration in closing track Until I Bleed Out. Almost mirroring Alone Again in its subdued projection, it completes the well-paced arc drawn throughout, being as conclusive as it can be for an artist known for obscurity. The littering of Nintendo-esque synth-sequences, which warp into the abrupt end, also work well, dancing over his final, stirring verses.
A mastery of production, After Hours proves that in the industry where artists are often swallowed by each other's noise, hard work, refinement and consistency pay dividends. Even though Abel assures us from the start that he's removed 'his disguise', the shadowy world he's created in Chapter 6 is foregrounded with such an immersive narrative, that even he himself appears consumed by the red-jacketed character he has created. In such an uncertain time for our own society, it's uplifting to see an artist who is so obviously having fun with his work, and inviting us to escape into an intricate world, enchantingly more surreal than our own.