There’s two voices on The Weeknd’s new album After Hours. It only dawns on you halfway through that there’s now a duality and a conflict to Abel Tesfaye. Ever since 2011’s Trilogy mixtape, The Weeknd’s sombre marque of self destruction, casual sex and Class A’s has become a hallmark for the Canadian singer. However, After Hours sees Tesfaye stripping The Weekend of all his pomp and his glitz.
He’s taken a sledgehammer to The Weeknd of Beauty Behind The Madness and Starboy and we’re left with something much darker and way more introspective.
There’s an unsettling eeriness to After Hours from the start. Album opener ‘Alone Again’ drifts and creeps hauntingly and hazily until it’s assaulted by crunchy synths that almost bury Tesfaye’s confessional. ‘I’m living someone else’s life’ and ‘I don’t know If I can sleep alone again’ are the sound of Tesfaye’s hedonistic anti-hero finally coming home – and he’s tired of it all.
It’s safe to say he has never been better than this, and in keeping with his cameo in The Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems, After Hours feels like a movie.
It has something of the operatic drama of Purple Rain and the still iciness of a cool 1980’s noir such as American Gigolo. The surfaces here all reflect and they reflect a dream pop landscape of druggy excess, hate fucking, fear and loathing.
After Hours is the detox and the purge of the morning after but its also the comfort of a familiar face amidst the come down from hell. Tracks such as ‘Escape from L.A’ and ‘Snowchild’ ruminate on last night’s glories and they gloomily traipse along, humming with electric angst until they fall into a wall of soft noise. The album’s cover displays Tesfaye bloodied, beaten and staring down the lens of the camera – After Hours is the death of one persona and the unveiling of another, it’s also Tesfaye at his least self-conscious.
However, it’s not all introspective. ‘Heartless’ sees Tesfaye stray as close to his former self as he gets, and the first two verses feel like him railing aggressively against the gut level sadness that devours the rest of the record. He’s fighting himself and it’s thrilling as the song eventually acquiesces and bleeds into a soft malaise as he croons, ‘I lost my heart and my mind’.
But the dourness doesn’t have to be quite so moody, ‘Blinded by The Lights’ is Tesfaye at his peak. The song rockets along with an irresistible refrain and echoes melancholic 80’s hits I ran and Boys of Summer; it’s simply the best thing he’s ever recorded.
There’s still the dizzying, sickly and somewhat tacky quality to all this though and that same blinged-up melancholy that has haunted all his albums to date is very present. The Weeknd still wins out over Abel on occasions but even at its most glamorous, it’s impossibly earnest.
Maybe it’s most evident on ‘Faith’, where he sings ‘If I OD I want you to OD right beside me’ – it’s a record that captures the fight against nihilism, against succumbing to materialism, wealth and a lack of connection.
It’s took the best part of a decade but Abel Tesfaye is free of The Weeknd and has found some clarity in this 56 minutes of perfect doom soul and R&B. It’s absolutely the finest album of his career to date.
Words by Chris Burns