The Weeknd is dead, and his latest album, Dawn FM, is the sound of purgatory. On his previous project, After Hours, Abel Tesfaye seemingly killed off his character with an overdose in the back of an ambulance. At the end of the album, having succumbed to the “Blinding Lights” of fame and excess, he closed out the record with “Until I Bleed Out,” where he sings “I can’t move, I’m so paralyzed.”
Dawn FM, a concept album that picks up on a multiyear meta-narrative, opens with pastoral winds and bird sounds as the Weeknd drives down the road searching for a light at the end of a tunnel. His radio is turned to a fictional radio station: 103.5 Dawn FM, hosted by the Weeknd’s real-life neighbor, the actor Jim Carrey; at one point, Carrey dispenses with After Hours and does an ad for After Life, “only $4.95 with a subscription.”
More than just a collection of ’80s-nostalgia single bait, this the Toronto crooner’s most narratively compelling album yet: “Starry Eyes” reads as a eulogy to his Starboy past; “Out of Time” is a nod to the Quincy Jones–produced “Human Nature” but without the hi-fi sheen (Jones, who makes an appearance in a narrative interlude, says, “Looking back is a bitch isn’t it?”). The album’s lead single, “Take My Breath,” mashes up the muted guitars of Stevie Nicks’s “Edge of Seventeen,” a classic FM-radio hit, with the acid bass from Daft Punk’s “Da Funk,” itself a mash-up of samples from Barry White and Vaughan Mason & Crew.
These songs are a send-up of the commoditization of celebrity, appropriate as Tesfaye prefers to shine the spotlight away from his private affairs. And while countless critics opine about the end of celebrity culture, Dawn FM suggests they are already ghosts. Its rehashed, nostalgic sounds are tasteful commentary supplied by Vaporwave pioneer Daniel Lopatin, better known as Oneohtrix Point Never. Before it became a meme in the early 2010s, Vaporwave’s dystopian retro sound mashed up commercial Muzak with ’80s pop samples. Oneohtrix Point Never’s 2012 single “Nobody Here,” which samples two lines from Chris de Burgh’s 1986 megahit “The Lady in Red,” sounds like music piped into an empty, moldering shopping mall.
Throughout his career, the Weeknd has tricked us into listening to catchy melodies that underscore our darker reality; we’re stuck in a musical purgatory — with Lapotin’s production, Dawn FM sounds like a reference to a reference, a radio song transferred to cassette and compressed into an MP3. In reviving Vaporwave, a mostly deceased micro-genre, the Weeknd questions the reliability of musical memory. Listen to Charlie Harding and Nate Sloan break down that and everything else Dawn FM on this week’s episode of Switched on Pop.