The Robert Smith of millenials? Abel Tesfaye has been vying for that title for almost five years. The Weeknd has shown a knack for the kind of po-faced emoting that made The Cure every angsty romantic reject’s favorite band in the ’80s, and though the comparison will surely seem outrageous to some, it’s not hard to recognize similarities between the mascara-smearing “Boys Don’t Cry” legend and this generation’s own version of the mysterious and offbeat singer-songwriter. As with The Cure, affairs of the heart are front and center, but often filtered through a healthy dose of awkward insecurity and some narcissism. And Tesfaye’s more obvious spiritual predecessor remains the late Michael Jackson, whose paranoia and quirky sensibility seem to have been channeled by The Weeknd on his second studio album, Beauty Behind the Madness.But what’s also obvious is Tesfaye’s continued growth as a songwriter.Tesfaye’s pop instincts are at their most refined here. The Weeknd’s always crafted hooks that were both memorable and oddly understated, but on Beauty Behind the Madness, well-crafted pop songs take center stage—no longer becoming lost in a wash of sonic textures. These are songs that are heightened by the production, not defined by it.That’s not to say The Weeknd’s emotional range has expanded all that much. Like its predecessors, Beauty… doesn’t feature a wide range of shifts in tone as it pertains to subject matter—this is mopey music, as always. But Tesfaye is working with a wider palette this time around.
Owing a lot to “The Way You Make Me Feel,” the pulsing rhythms of “In the Night” recall mid-’80s Genesis at their most radio-friendly. The coda of “Acquainted” is another example of Tesfaye’s knack for simple shifts in arrangement that can add cinematic drama; and that kind of production flair boosts the smash hit 50 Shades of Grey theme “Earned It.” Lana Del Rey’s ghostly contribution to “Prisoner” helps to elevate the already haunting track—a gliding ballad that somehow still manages to sound like what’s been done before, as does the menace and misogyny of “The Hills,” another already-released hit single. “Shameless” is a sex-driven taunt doubling as a cautionary tale, with The Weeknd’s focus on a contradictory partner who “lives for the pain” set against soft acoustic lines.The effortless catchiness of the chart-topping cocaine anthem “I Can’t Feel My Face” is an obvious nod to Tesfaye’s mainstay, Jackson. It’s one of the few unapologetically upbeat moments on this reliably downbeat set, and it demonstrates how easily The Weeknd could be delivering party anthems—were it not for the fact that Tesfaye could care less about you having a good time. Sex, drugs, and rock & roll are complicated things, and he’s intent on reminding you of that bitter pill on virtually every second of Beauty. The Weeknd has never convincingly celebrated the “casual” side of sex or drugs. This is not about fun. This is about conflict. This is about angst. It’s 808s & Heartbreak Kanye West meets The Smiths.
“When I’m fucked up, that’s the real me…”
Whereas most pop writers have a tendency to write emotional theme songs, Tesfaye’s tendency has leaned towards treating songs like background scores for his pathos. Combined with his oft-limited emotional range, it can make his music sound aimless to impatient listeners. He’s earned that criticism. But he’s beginning to understand better how to marry his sonic adventurousness to a musical assuredness that yields his most concise and focused work. The Ed Sheeran-assisted “Dark Times” is another highlight, featuring some of the album’s best vocal work and harrowing lyrics about “Driving too fast or just moving too slow / And I’ve got something I’ve been trying to let go.”Beauty Behind the Madness reveals a hedonism-obsessed songwriter coming of age in the Obama years and coming to grips with what that means. Here, The Weeknd begins to stretch the limits of a now well-established sound, delivering a set of songs that stand up as songs as opposed to just soundscapes. Ever-detached as a vocalist, Tesfaye still sounds isolated; there is no warmth here. But no one comes to an album by The Weeknd looking for warmth, do they? Nevertheless, it would be wrong to dismiss this as just emotionless sonics; the emotion is in the sonics. And, chart hits notwithstanding, the songs are beginning to catch up to the production.
The Weeknd’s pain and soul-searching will always take center stage. Fuck your fun. Tesfaye’s still the only guy (except for maybe Kanye) who can make the party sound this depressing. But after four years, he’s grown by leaps and bounds creatively while sustaining his commercial momentum. Beauty Behind the Madness doesn’t sacrifice creativity for accessibility; Abel Tesfaye is still managing to push himself as he’s become a chart-topper. Not much more anyone can ask of the guy.
Morrissey would be proud.