What has the past two years got pop superstar The Weeknd thinking about? Well, if his latest LP Dawn FM is proof of anything, it’s that the singer has a lot on his mind. Through a winding hour-long ride on a cosmic radio wavelength, The Weeknd brings us on a trip through life, death, love, loss, and trauma. And synthesisers. Lots of synthesisers.
Dawn FM achieves what The Weeknd had always been in danger of — finally getting lost inside his own world. Filled with faux profundity, bizarre guest verses, jarring tonal changes, and a repetitious sameness, Dawn FM is proof that even the heaviest hitters can strike out occasionally.
The most basic problem with Dawn FM is just how little the album’s songs distinguish themselves from one another. Thanks to the concept of listening to an uninterrupted radio broadcast, the album segues from one song to another without ever taking time to care whether any of these songs should sound different. Every song uses the same synthesiser, the same drum machine, and the same goofy ’80s aesthetic. The transitions between ‘How Do I Make You Love Me?’ and ‘Take My Breath’ or ‘Best Friends’ and ‘Is There Something Else?’ are seamless, but only because they’re almost exactly the same songs.
But having a cohesive sound isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and The Weeknd fully commits to his concept by bringing in pal Oneohtrix Point Never to produce most of the album. But the saddest part is that everything on Dawn FM just feels like a hollow retread of OPN’s Magic Oneohtrix Point Never, which has the same “psychedelic radio” concept. The only difference is that the intricate attention to detail gets lost when you flip the station over to Dawn FM.
In terms of themes, The Weeknd is clearly enraptured by the creeping onset of death throughout most of the LP. The fatalistic obsession seems to play at odds with the more glib observations regarding casual sex on ‘Best Friends’ or the more basic pleas on ‘Starry Eyed’. But the singer never seems committed to one side or the other: is life worth living, like he says on ‘Sacrifice’? Or do we need to embrace that little light that we see in the distance, like in the announcement at the end of ‘Out of Time’?
That announcement is made by Jim Carrey, who puts on his best Jim Ladd impression throughout his multiple appearances on the album as the station’s DJ. Carrey’s biggest contribution comes by way of a cosmic poem in the LP’s finale. Here, we learn that the overarching obsession with death is actually… just a metaphor for living in the moment. It feels hackneyed and anticlimactic, to say the least, almost as if the past 50 minutes were mainly an excuse to spew some fortune cookie wisdom.
The other guests are similarly tossed off. If you want to hear Tyler, the Creator make a triumphant return to rap, listen to Call Me If You Get Lost. If you want Lil Wayne to bring his slinky and slightly off-kilter flow to a modern collaboration, go listen to DMX’s ‘Dogs Out’. If you want to hear Quincy Jones’ profoundly sad origin story, there’s the fantastic documentary, Quincy, that’s still on Netflix. There’s no denying the calibre of talent that gets brought into Dawn FM, but it’s a shame that most of them have to be wasted.
So does that mean that Dawn FM is a complete failure? Hardly. In fact, the album works best when you can simply turn off your brain and go along for the ride. However, that seems at odds with The Weeknd’s desire to say something important about life or trauma or whatever seems to be on his mind at any given moment. Most of the spoken word inserts that were supposed to add a layer of insight will inevitably be seen as impediments, forever banished to the cruel hand of the skip button.
Ultimately, there’s nothing on Dawn FM that compares with the hooky staying power on After Hours, the hypnagogic R&B of House of Balloons, the instant star-making quality of Beauty Behind the Madness, or the celebratory expansiveness of Starboy. Instead of a leap into the great beyond, The Weeknd stumbles and falters on his latest album.