The Weeknd – House Of Balloons / Thursday / Echoes Of Silence (XO)
By Wallace Wylie
If anything came close to redeeming the sorry mess that we call Britpop it was the success of Pulp. Jarvis Cocker and co saw the writing on the wall and, after becoming superstars in the UK with Different Class, they followed it up with the career-derailing downer This Is Hardcore. The title track was a dark, crawling masterpiece, with Cocker using sex as a metaphor for fame, fame as a metaphor for sex, and sex as a means to explore twisted power dynamics. The song’s narrator uses all his powers of persuasion in order to convince the subject of his affection that she should sleep with him. It makes for uneasy listening, yet stands out as perhaps the greatest song in Pulp’s back catalogue. The album is awash with images of lost individuals desperately seeking some new thrill, and on the song ‘Party Hard’ the song’s protagonist asks, “If you didn’t come to party then why did you come here?” I mention these facts because I feel like the same spirit infuses the music of The Weeknd. Sex, drugs, more sex, more drugs, each song details another night of Bacchanalian excess with no redemption in sight. Are you ready to party?
The Weeknd (in reality a pen name for the only official member of the group, Canadian Abel Tesfaye) released its first album free via its website in March 2011, the stunning House Of Balloons, and before the year was out the group had released two more equally impressive albums (Thursday and Echoes Of Silence). The albums all explore the same shadowy world of drug excess and sleazy sex and, if the words contain barely a hint of regret, the music indicates that all is not well in this party world. House Of Balloons opener ‘High For This’ sets the tone. The song creeps along, fusing r&b with industrial, as beats echo and pound in a military fashion seeming to indicate impending doom. While the lyrics aggressively seduce, the music is telling you to run for your life. ‘House Of Balloons/Glass Table Girls’ takes Siouxsie And The Banshees’ ‘Happy House’ and turns it into an unnerving party anthem while ‘Wicked Games’ drags Dummy-era Portishead kicking and screaming into some poorly-lit Toronto back-room party in order to chronicle one more drug-fueled interaction between manipulative narrator and hapless victim.
Thursday picks up where House Of Balloons left off, so once again we have to play uncomfortable witness to the immoral activities playing out in each song. In contrast to Tyler the Creator, whose songs come off like repulsive teenage masturbation fantasies, The Weeknd has created a fully-formed universe complete with an ever-present, thematically consistent persona. (A little tip for Tyler’s fans: if you’re going to claim that the person narrating the songs is merely a persona, the songs themselves shouldn’t contain obvious references to Tyler’s actual life, i.e. his relationship with his father, his new-found fame, and the fact that he misses his friend Earl Sweatshirt.) The follow-up to something as highly praised as House Of Balloons seemed destined to suffer in comparison. As a result Thursday has perhaps been the most overlooked of The Weeknd’s releases. Time has been kind to Thursday, however, and it now appears every bit as strong as its predecessor does. ‘Lonely Star’, ‘Life Of The Party’, ‘The Zone’ and ‘The Birds part 1’ all qualify as standout tracks but, like House Of Balloons, the strength of Thursday is in its conceptual unity and overall consistency. For somebody who was both unknown and a mere 20 years of age when 2011 began Tesfaye sounds frighteningly assured. Yet he still had more to give.
Echoes Of Silence, released in late December 2011, opens with a stunning cover of ‘Dirty Diana’ by Michael Jackson, here re-titled ‘D.D.’. The cover works wonderfully because for once it places Tesfaye in the role of victim as opposed to aggressor. For the rest of the album the same narrator returns, and on ‘Initiation’ things are at their ugliest. Tesfaye’s voice distorts and disturbs and, once again, the lyrics tell the story of an innocent partygoer in over her head with too many drugs in her system and not enough clarity of thought to take control of the situation she has found herself in. Following this is ‘Same Old Song’, which finds the shameless narrator chiding a woman friend for not being there when he needed her! The album ends with the mournful title track and you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s the heartless narrator pleading “Don’t you leave my little life” as the song ends, but upon closer inspection it turns out that the plea comes from another disposable female companion. As expected, it falls on deaf ears. No moral. No redemption. Just another body to use. Just another high.
Taken as a whole these three albums make for an utterly compelling and brilliant trilogy. Make no mistake, you wouldn’t want to actually live in the world being described, but when the portrait is so detailed and the music so enticing it’s hard to avert your gaze. Like Matthew Dear with techno and house, Tesfaye has taken r&b as his musical template and coloured it with generous hues from the world of alternative rock and post-punk. (There are references to, and samples from, Siouxsie And The Banshees, Cocteau Twins, Kate Bush and Beach House.) Unlike the vast majority of acts who borrow from the past, The Weeknd renders these influences contemporary instead of using them as a sonic template or, worse, indulging in one more pointless game of spot-the-musical-references. Bands have built entire careers on the strength of three good albums, so it’s no wonder that The Weeknd has amassed such critical acclaim in such a short time. With acclaim comes problems, however, and when the source of that acclaim is a website like Pitchfork then bands can face an uphill battle when trying to convince more skeptical music fans.
Hype is rampant on the internet and many look on in disgust the moment Pitchfork decides to champion a band. That The Weeknd owes what little fame it has mainly to Pitchfork is not in question, but does that automatically make the group unworthy of our time? It shouldn’t, but I confess that I avoided listening to The Weeknd for this very reason. In retrospect, this was a stupid decision. I denied myself the pleasure of listening to three of the best albums from last year just so I could prove to myself that I wasn’t being swayed by Pitchfork. Three weeks ago, I got over such foolishness and since downloading the albums, I’ve listened to barely anything else. The conceptual breadth and towering consistency of Tesfaye’s output is nothing short of astounding. For those who, like me, may have avoided The Weeknd for non-musical reasons I advise you to give up such small-minded thinking. Each album is undeniably brilliant in its own right, and if you’re worried that you would be arriving a little late to the party don’t fret: the after-party is still raging. Consider yourself invited.
You can download all three albums by The Weeknd for free right here.