The music is more gloom than glitz.
Though the 2016 album Starboy succeeded in staging the apotheosis of The Weeknd as the dark, romantic figure at the helm of today’s electronica-inflected R&B, it was also criticized for being somewhat overlong, weighed down by a few tracks too many. As though in response to these voices, The Weeknd has released My Dear Melancholy,—yes, the comma is meant to be there—a six-track mini-album with just over 20 minutes of music. But despite its brevity, it nonetheless feels like a small world unto itself, yet another deep dive into the tortuous paths of inner conflict and emotional turmoil we have come to know and love from Abel Tesfaye.
Longtime The Weeknd fans will no doubt rejoice in the fact that the music is more gloom than glitz, and strips away some of the layers of dance-pop sheen that had come to characterize his sound. Lead track “Call Out My Name” alerts the listener that we are in full 808s & Heartbreak territory, one governed by slow, grim beats and a diaristic rawness straight out of the Kanye playbook.
But it is also much more than that—The Weeknd’s music has always revealed, above all, what a smart listener he is, how cleverly he can assimilate influences and respond to them by generating new and arresting forms of musical expression, from old-school soul, funk, pop and R&B to the latest in Euro-dance, ambient, electronica and hip-hop. Unlike, say, Bruno Mars, whose music is fun because it reminds you of the much better songs it cribs from, when you’re listening to The Weeknd, you rarely, if ever, wish you were listening to something else.
This is particularly true on songs like “Try Me,” where The Weeknd’s falsetto, bubbling over the cold insistence of a spare beat adorned with a few background synth shimmers, creates a strikingly abstract form of dance music. By the time the music fades out after the last cry— “Don’t you miss me?”—it feels like much more than a few minutes have passed, and not because the song is plodding (it isn’t at all), but because it is that engrossing. This is dance music that makes you feel like you’re eavesdropping.
Much of the lyrical content seems addressed to exes (the internet can provide you with the juicy details). This becomes particularly clear on the song “Wasted Times,” which distinguishes the kind of vulnerability The Weeknd can offer as opposed to, say, a Drake song, which, however excellently, can only perform what, in a song by this artist, actually makes you cringe for its whiplash-inducing succession of conflicting and coexisting emotions. His vocals sound particularly strong on “I Was Never There,” at one point eerily reminiscent of Michael Jackson (one can only imagine a collaboration between the two).
The most radio-ready song, “Hurt You,” features production courtesy of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo of Daft Punk, one of several notable contributors on the album, which features extensive work by Frank Dukes, as well as more local interventions by Nicolar Jaar, Jason Quenneville, Brittany Hazzard, Skrillex and French DJ Gesaffelstein, to name a few. The closer, “Privilege,” is the most interesting song lyrically, with its druggy puns—“I got two red pills to take the blues away”—and unrelenting melancholy, flying in the face of those who would say that, now that certain artists are famous, they have no right to be miserable anymore.
Where My Dear Melancholy, will ultimately reside on fans’ lists of The Weeknd’s best work, time will tell. In the meantime, it makes clear that he is one of a few contemporary artists that music cannot do without, one who manages to make headphones feel like a confessional booth with every new release.