No one can drain the glamor and excitement from sex, drugs, and R&B quite like Abel Tesfaye. His first three releases as the Weeknd were moody, desperate transmissions. House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence arrived from a nihilistic, alien world. (Or maybe not. For your own sake, I sure hope their lyrics remain far from relatable.) Collected on the startling Trilogy, those mixtapes were improved by the Weeknd’s near-total anonymity. When they dropped in 2011, Tesfaye was a young Torontonian folding clothes at a retail job. He built on the mystery, revealing little more than some murky photographs of himself. We learned a few crucial details, such as his connection to hometown hero Drake. (And that he’d worked with producers Doc McKinney and Illangelo.) But Tesfaye maintained a low profile amidst escalating acclaim. Like the animatronic monster from Jaws, less exposure only heightened the tension. We had to fill in his many blank spaces.
The shroud lifted ahead of Kiss Land, the Weeknd’s interminable 2013 follow-up to Trilogy. In the harsh light of day, Tesfaye’s joyless hedonism, intensified by an influx of cash, became wearying. Worse yet were his unfocused and hookless song structures, which, for once, felt inert. The Weeknd’s latest album solves half of Kiss Land’s problems. Beauty Behind the Madness is a tight, pop-inflected U-turn, even as it sprawls past the one hour mark. Its 14 tracks all sound opulent, more and more so when you allow them to unfurl and present their sonic riches. Here is expert craft, both of the studio and melodic variety, at its finest. And yet, like its predecessor, Beauty Behind the Madness stifles the listener. I'll be happy to be rid of it once I submit this review.
Tell me, how can anyone avoid these songs when a couple are currently Nos. 2 and 5 on the Hot 100? Find the nearest cave and call it home? I only (halfway) kid, of course. I adore the astonishing “Can’t Feel My Face” as much as the guy sitting next to me on the metro. But, taken as a whole, Beauty Behind the Madness is the dourest of concept records. The topic is Abel Tesfaye’s lifestyle and, somehow, he seems more bored and frustrated by it than me. His self-loathing is a little too convincing. From “Real Life” to “Angel”, the album finds Tesfaye trapped at rock bottom. And that’s where he’s erected a Xanadu, one lousy with stripper poles and mountains of coke. On the Kanye West collaboration “Tell Your Friends”, he boasts with a knowing wink. Other moments of lyrical self-parody — see “Shameless” and “Often” — appear to be less intentional.
From the start, Abel Tesfaye’s voice has recalled a more storied King of Pop. His thrilling cover of “Dirty Diana” from Echoes of Silence double-underlined the similarity. The Weeknd continues to emulate Michael Jackson so adeptly the new record often turns into a tribute. This, mind you, is no complaint. My favorite songs on Beauty Behind the Madness channel Jackson’s ghost outright. “Can't Feel My Face” is an obvious, and excellent, example. If a Weeknd song deserves to stand atop the charts, this is it. “In the Night”, a full on post-disco number, is more slavish — and more wonderful. The opening duo “Real Life” and “Losers” modernize MJ's sound, and put Xscape to shame. “Angel”, the album closer, comes just shy of being a magnificent Jacksonian ballad.
As good as these songs are, their lyrical monotony can be punishing. It’s one thing to suffer the misogyny and hard partying of an artist who seems to be enjoying himself. But when “singing ‘bout popping pills” and “fucking bitches” and “living life so trill” sounds about as fun as a colonoscopy, you know there’s a problem. On “The Hills” Tesfaye sings, “When I'm fucked up, that's the real me.” And I believe him. I used to wonder if his anemic debauchery amounted to mere schtick, a put on. Not anymore. Beauty Behind the Madness convinces me of three things. One: The Weeknd is still capable of making great music. Two: Abel Tesfaye has constructed a gorgeous suicide note. Three: I have zero interest in witnessing another young artist’s self-implosion. Beauty Behind the Madness is the best album I’ll never listen to again. B MINUS