Monday, 31 August 2015

The Weeknd - Beauty Behind the Madness Review

When Abel ‘The Weeknd’ Tesfaye came onto the scene in 2011 it played out in such a way that somehow encapsulated everything the new alt-R&B project was about. It wasn’t the head-first dive into the pool of round the clock radio-play and sellout venues that has become typical of pop newcomers, this was something far more interesting. There was no sensational single shooting its way up the Billboard numbers; or endless promotion from musical hype-machines (à la NME). Rather a series of concise highly thought out releases in the form of three EP’s sporadically set out and left to fizzle through the underground music blogosphere.

Thursday, House of Balloons and Echoes of Silence championed a new darker style of R&B. Brooding sedated beats underpinned angelic falsetto vocals crooning about an Eyes Wide Shut type world of seemingly never-ending drug-infused, sex-crazed hedonism. Abel juggled moments of ecstasy with sections of nightmarish paranoia, and people loved it. Before long the Trilogy was garnering rave reviews from MTV and Pitchfork alike, doubling as both a critical darling and a [somewhat] commercial success. 2011 became the year of the Weeknd.

Since 2011, however, much has changed. Tesfaye was promptly taken under Drake’s wing, signed to a major label and began to step out of the depressive underground shadow he had been lurking behind. Debut album, Kissland, was released to a lukewarm reception, although it was a certifiable profit smash – entering the Billboard top 200 at number 2.

Since then the music press has been waiting in trepidation of the next Weeknd release: Would he fully commit himself to the mainstream pop world he’d been quietly courting? Or return to his underground roots? Another set of totally new game-changing EP’s were in store perhaps?

Unfortunately for most, it was the former. Whereas Kissland straddled the lines between the traditional Weeknd sound and more conventional beats, Beauty Behind the Madness is a bona fide pop album. You only need to look at the big name collaborations to clock this. This is also a watershed moment in Abel’s approach to production: almost every track is bombarded with layers of punchy, heavily polished pop beats (handclaps and all) unseen on a Weeknd work before.

The best example of this new approach to production is "Can’t Feel My Face" – my personal favourite from the album. This groove-based pop banger plays out like a contemporary homage to Off The Wall era Michael Jackson – with a Nile Rodgers-esque guitar section and fantastic funk driven bass line guiding the song through Tesfaye’s double entendre-laden lyrics based around his infatuation with hard drugs. Modern synth chords and subtle inflections bring the track into the 21st Century. And one’s first reaction upon listening the whole way through is to lunge at the replay button.

Other examples include the downbeat "Tell Your Friends", a typically introspective reflection on the playboy lifestyle Abel loves to hate to live. Rich piano chords and vocal overdubs actually enhance the contemplative nature of the song as well as making for a fuller sound.  

Trap-heavy "Often" and "The Hills" (both titanic singles) are unflinchingly sinister in terms of beats and lyrics. The latter, presumed to reference Pop world’s newest sweetheart, Ariana Grande, builds to a particularly visceral chorus – putting the vocals in the backseat and allowing the pulsing synths to speak for themselves. These are both standout tracks.

Though sadly this new gung-ho approach is more often than not counterproductive. There are too many instances of songs being so overladen with effects that it becomes homogenized to the point where they become nothing more than a standardized pop number or, even worse, a skip-track.

Cuts like "Real Life" and "Acquainted" embody all that is flawed about this new method, so much cluttered instrumentation and convoluted production sounds are crammed together to the point where it is hard to get through a full listen. 

The collaborative tracks too (barre a generally solid track with Lana Del Rey) are underwhelming. The worst song of the album is Ed Sheeran backed "Dark Times", in which the two artists attempt to play off each other in a competition of edginess. Needless to say Sheeran is out-schooled from the get go, and the two come off less of a power-couple and more a massively lopsided wingmanship.

Abel's voice is still stellar, his lyrics still unashamedly explicit, but I just wasn't feeling this record. Unless you're a diehard Weeknd fan or pop devotee I’d recommend you stick with the fantastic singles and avoid the pretty drab deep cuts off this album. 

Jack McGlone

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