Rating:So it comes to this. After a meteoric year, gloomy R&B act the Weeknd culminates its three part epic of sleaze, partying and enough drug references to threaten to make you aurally OD with Echoes of Silence. Since the release of House of Balloons in a shroud of grainy photos and the ensuing explosion of the blogosphere and then the follow up entry in the trilogy, Thursday, the Weeknd has, if not become household names, been praised to high heaven (or whatever realm of sex and codeine would pass for it). But singer Abel Tesfaye and producer Illangelo have a tough balancing act to pull off; after a staggering debut and a nearly equal follow-up, can the climax possibly meet expectations? Or is the high already gone, and this is just the comedown?
Strangely, Echoes of Silence is a little bit of both: admirable for its structural integrity and far less musically interesting than its predecessors. None of the nine tracks here match the head-turning, Siouxsie-sampling hook of “House of Balloons”/”Glass Table Girls” and none have the raw, paranoid force of “Life of the Party.” Instead, the songs on the end of the trilogy of releases are largely downbeat, swathed in synthesizers and Tesfaye’s ethereal, multi-tracked voice. This is not to say that they’re poorly written or produced; in fact, from a songwriting perspective, this might be some of the Weeknd’s finest work, relying far more on melody and Tesfaye’s lyrics than samples or shock value. In particular, the sheer number of self-references throughout Echoes of Silence feel more like the build up of a kind of debauched mythology, with callbacks to “Thursday” cropping up as a probably false apology in “The Fall” followed by a reference to “Lonely Star” in “Montreal.”
But here’s the thing: while the comparatively restrained tone of the songs feels like a kind of exhaustion that I choose to believe is an artistic choice rather than a dearth of creative energy, it also makes them far more dull. By stripping away the tricks and frills of its predecessors, Echoes of Silence completes the journey of a protagonist reaching the end of his rope, unable to get the same thrills from the same voices. And while that’s an admirable choice to culminate the theme of these linked released, not having those tricks and frills is equally less interesting to a listener. The only really novel element is the opening track, a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” (re-titled “D.D.”) so faithful that it could almost qualify as a karaoke song, albeit one by a singer almost supernaturally able to imitate MJ’s vocals. But many of the songs simply offer retreads of the same material, like the singer emphasizing drug use and his general world weariness: “Don’t make me pop your cheap ass pills/ I used to do this for the thrill” or the deeply creepy sexual scenario of “Initiation.”
Fittingly, the most haunting moment of three ghostly, decadent and sinister albums comes from the final title track “Echoes of Silence.” After all the misogyny, sexuality, club talk, lines, pills, puff, the album closes in a vast empty place, occupied only by Tesfaye’s voice and a quiet, spare piano. After it all, it simply ends with a lover being left behind, pleading, “I like the thrill/ Nothing’s gonna make me feel this real/ So baby don’t go home/ I don’t wanna spend tonight alone.” It’s a stark, lonely moment after all the bombast and sleaze. Echoes of Silence is a complicated album, if not quite the equal of its predecessors. Where they were dynamic and fascinating, it’s tragic, exhausted and sometimes even beautiful.