Max Martin: a songwriter who has done more than anyone else to shape the sound of pop music over the past 25 years – Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, the full list might as well be endless. Oneohtrix Point Never: an avant-garde electronic producer who cut his teeth in the noise community but is fascinated by cliché and the hypnagogic effect of bland, effortlessly familiar music.
The Weeknd: Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, previously a rather frustrating R&B star, now the willing conduit for a new form of post-modernism where every note and lyric is sincere and insincere in equal measure, and Jim Carrey’s soothing voice reverberates off the walls of what looks suspiciously like a suicide booth.
After Hours had some brilliant musical moments, Hardest To Love and billion-streamer Blinding Lights among them, but it was transitory in nature. Now we’ve arrived at an album with a consistent, unique sound, and a level of craft that for years seemed beyond the Canadian crooner. Whether it’s lead single Take My Breath, on which Cerrone-inspired arpeggios adorn a ridiculously catchy hook about a beguiling gasper, or the affected, electro stylings of Don’t Break My Heart, the hooks are impeccably oiled and the beats glisten with an almost nauseating sheen.
Some guests come along for the ride, notably a reformed Swedish House Mafia adding their trademark bouncy synth chords to How Do I Make You Love Me? and Tyler, The Creator expressing his conflicted thoughts on a budding relationship (one minute “we don’t need the government involved because we like to touch / we don’t need no damn religion telling us that we in love”, the next “you gon’ sign this prenup”), while Lil Wayne gives a charmingly garbled verse over the Calvin Harris-assisted beats of I Heard You’re Married.
But the headline act is really the aforementioned low culture/high culture clash of executive producers, a pairing that leaves the listener never quite sure where they stand. Does it matter whether one enjoys this music ironically or not? Despite having more creative freedom than the Starboy days, how cynical is The Weeknd’s attitude to pop in general? Is our radio presenter merely helping us transcend or is he more nefarious, condemning us to our fate?
Our most convincing answer to the last question comes from closing track Phantom Regret By Jim, on which Carrey delivers a poignant poem about the need to sever all mortal attachments (“if your broken heart’s heavy when you step on the scale / you’ll be lighter than air when they pull back the veil / consider the flowers, they don’t try to look right / they just open their petals and turn to the light”). At the finale of a record that plays like an audio Rorschach test, all we can say for certain is that the burbling synths are sickly sweet and the words are pretty – and maybe that’s all we need to succumb to the inevitable?
It might be instructive to compare Dawn FM to another big pop album of recent years: Sweetener by Ariana Grande, which involved multiple contributions from Max Martin (and his assorted colleagues) as well as Pharrell Williams, but never on the same song. The styles did not even remotely gel and as such the record turned out an incoherent mess, requiring a hasty three-point-turn in the form of thank u, next. With Dawn FM The Weeknd has demonstrated a vision that the vast majority of his peers would be incapable of, and has executed it with finesse and a slippery, enigmatic charm.