House of Balloons
Label: Self Released
It’s almost cute how crossover between musical genres is still viewed as experimental, even daring. It is also a little sad that decades after Otis Redding reinterpreted the Rolling Stones as soul and Run DMC fused hip hop rhythms with rock guitars that such appropriations are viewed with surprise. But the upside of such perpetual cultural bemusement is that sometimes a new fusion of sound appears and still does have the power to fascinate. Such is the case with the Weeknd, the haunting R&B project of vocalist Abel Tesfaye and producers Doc McKinney and Illangelo. Although much of the buzz leading up to the release of the House of Balloons mixtape has surrounded the distorted Siouxsie and the Banshees and Beach House samples, the album itself stands as a solid, sometimes disturbing slice of atmospheric R&B.
Taking heavy musical cues from producers like The-Dream and singer Drake (whose high profile fandom has been instrumental in propelling the Weeknd to the spotlight), House of Balloons is murky and despairing, but never imprecise. In fact, it’s a meticulously constructed album, each beat and synth sounding carefully constructed and arranged. Musically, it’s buoyed by slow digital drums and vast swathes of electronic sound that sometimes coalesce into something as mundane as a treated electric guitar or remain vague and ominous. And ominous is an appropriate term; this is an album devoted to the darker edges of R&B, a genre usually dominated by sexuality and emotion. Tesfaye alternates between a high tenor (sometimes reaching into falsetto) and a laconic, even-keeled rap flow; he manages to pull of the neat trick of sounding both detached and wounded, human even through the numbness.
And the music does sound wounded. It’s filled with references to sex that uncomfortably border the boundaries of consent and with enough drug intake to fuel a dozen parties gone wrong. On “Loft Music” (one of the tracks to admirably use a sped up Beach House sample as a hook), Tesfaye coldly croons, “The only girls that we fuck with/ Seem to have 20 different pills in ’em/ And tell us that they love us/ Even though they want a next man/ And the next man’s bitch want a third man.” It’s a statement almost breathtakingly misogynistic even before the following Eddie Murphy reference that gets even worse. And yet no one seems to be having any fun for all the debauchery; instead, the stories of fucking and snorting seem to be motivated by ennui and despair. In “The Party & the After Party,” which begins as a shimmering, slow-burning come-on culminates in “I got a brand new girl call it Rudolph/ She’ll probably OD before I show her to mama,” while the elegiac closer “The Knowing” is a flat out statement that the singer “ain’t washin’ [his] sins.” It’s both an acknowledgment and a statement of defiance.
House of Balloons is a powerful debut from a group almost unheard of until its release. Its sound is not as unprecedented as might be claimed, marrying the dark side of a genre already known for excess with the clinical melancholy of indie-rock, but it is without a doubt effective. Now that the Weeknd has leaped for its sudden fame, it’ll be fascinating to see where they can go from the darkness here.
by Nathan Kamal