In a recent article for The Ringer, music writer Rob Harvilla described The Weeknd as “self-quarantine R&B.” That’s kind of a perfect label. Not only does it have to suffice given our current pandemic lock-down, but Abel Tesfaye has made a very illustrious, successful, wildly entertaining career out of his dark, loathsome, isolated-at-the-party persona.
And when it works, it approaches perfection. But after nine years, four EPs, three full-length albums, and an avalanche of guest appearances, when does it get tired? That kind of depends on who’s asking.
After Hours arrives at a strange time. There will be no headlining tour in support of it anytime soon, no summer festival appearances, and very few (if any) big events blaring the sounds of its singles. Instead, we all get to enjoy it in isolation. And that setting lends itself to a more purposeful, thoughtful listen. When Tesfaye is at his best, that’s truly the ideal way to consume his art.
Upon the release of My Dear Melancholy in 2018, I noted how Tesfaye’s return to more emotional depths after his brief celebration at the summit felt oddly refreshing. Starboy served its purpose as making the most of a moment in which The Weeknd had fully crossed over from Coachella darling to mainstream celebrity. It comes as a relief and a surprise that After Hours picks up where Melancholy left off.
Much like Tesfaye’s breakthrough smash “I Can’t Feel My Face” served as a red herring prior to the release of Beauty Behind the Madness, early After Hours singles “Heartless” and “Blinding Lights” find new life and meaning within the flow of the album. Also like Madness, After Hours moves at its own pace, gradually shifting shape across its 14 tracks and blending into something cohesive.
Buzzing opener “Alone Again” sets the early pace and makes clear that After Hours will live up to its name. This isn’t a collection of club bangers. This is what you play at 3 a.m. when it’s clear that your demons won’t be allowing you to sleep. Just two tracks later, “Hardest to Love” jars the listener with its off-key synthesizers, sounding like the evil twin of an 80’s ballad. It would almost be sweet if it weren’t so drenched in self-loathing: “I don’t feel it anymore / The house I bought is not a home / Together we are so alone”.
But lest the album feel like a dredge, the pace picks up when Metro Boomin enters the mix around “Escape from LA”, right before “Heartless” turns up the volume. It’s here that Tesfaye reveals his hand: He hasn’t changed. And the track feels like Weeknd circa 2012 with the line, “I’ve been dodging death in the six-speed / Amphetamine got my stummy feelin’ sickly”.
“Faith” follows suit by leaning all the way into the pain. It would almost feel like caricature if the track wasn’t so goddamn smooth: “But if I OD, I want you to OD right beside me / I want you to follow right behind me / I want you to hold me while I’m smiling / While I’m dying”. The song’s outro takes note of the blinding ambulance and city lights fluttering across his eyes before spilling into the previously innocuous single “Blinding Lights”.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, right? But that’s the thing. I’m a firm believer that 2015’s Beauty Behind the Madness stands as The Weeknd’s best work, which is why his Starboy journey into broad daylight felt so…off. After Hours is a return to Tesfaye’s wheelhouse in every sense, and if it feels too familiar, well, that’s totally fine with me. Because that’s kind of what I’m looking for right now.
I saw The Weeknd perform during his Starboy arena tour in 2017. It was a spectacle and a hell of a night. It also didn’t feel true to what I loved about his music. In many ways, After Hours is built to be listened to in solitude, in the dark. Fortunately, we all have plenty of time on our hands right now. But it’s understandable if that’s not what you’re looking for.
For me, it’s a welcome return to form for an artist who has soundtracked so many of my favorite, albeit tipsy and spinny memories over the past decade. It’s also an invitation to explore an anti-hero type narrative around an artist who probably needs to change, but is bound by bad habits and old demons. “I thought I’d be a better man, but I lied to me and to you”, he slurs on the chorus of “Faith”. If that’s something that resonates with you, dim the lights and indulge.
by Kiel Hauck
Kiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple pop culture outlets and was previously an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife, daughter, and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.