A Long Weeknd

20 Nov

Abel Tesfaye, the man behind the musical persona The Weeknd, does not seem to care for the concept of holding something back.  His songs routinely push the five-minute mark, with nary an efficient, radio-friendly pop hit in sight, and he seems to enjoy combining multiple themes into one song – pushing those particular track times to over seven minutes.  When it comes to lyrical content, Tesfaye pretty much puts it all out there.  He’s not going to edit lyrics out of a fear of being too offensive, or of coming across as too sensitive or eccentric.  Based upon many lyrical samples from his short career it seems that whatever’s going on inside Abel’s head is going to be explicated at some point in a breathy falsetto or low-register rap.  Explicit tales of drug use, kinky sex, heavy drinking – it’s all there in vivid, gory detail.

So no, Abel does not seem to be a proponent of restraint when it comes to many aspects of his musical output as The Weeknd.  In light of that, it didn’t come as too big of a surprise when his first major-label release, Trilogy, lived up to its name and dropped as a package of three ‘discs’ (or whatever you want to call them in these stream-heavy modern times).  Three whole ‘discs’ composed of over 160 minutes of music on a major debut – that kind of confident grandiosity is right up Abel’s alley.

When it comes to the music of Trilogy, that inescapable refusal of The Weeknd to scale things back defines the listening experience.  There are brilliant highs in which the production and the songwriting combine to create a wholly unique and darkly sexual sonic world that is more seductive than most other musical releases from the past few years.  At the same time, there are musical runs and entire songs that fall on the wrong side of indulgent and that would have been best left to an optional bonus disc.  While these weaker parts of Trilogy take away from the quality of the album as a whole, they seem, for now, to be a necessary evil if we are to still get the full potential of Abel at his best.

Tracks like “The Party & The After Party” or “House Of Balloons / Glass Table Girls” (both not coincidentally on the first album, but more on this in a second) are great because the artist behind them is throwing every idea he’s got into the composition of the music.  These songs feature shifting themes and concepts, both narratively and sonically, and take the listener on an emotional trip that could only come from the mind of someone unafraid to put it all out there.  It’s human nature, particularly for a young professional, to have questionable or just plain bad ideas at times, and when everything is being put on the table from an Idea standpoint, there’s going to be some poor judgments mixed within the good-and-occasionally-brilliant ones.  When you look at Trilogy as an uncensored and immersive transmission from a uniquely gifted musical mind, it’s easier to forgive the occasional stumbles and outright mistakes.

There’s another way to look at Trilogy, however, that offers a less-optimistic view on the artistic merits of The Weeknd both now and in the future.  The majority of Trilogy is made up of tracks that have already been self-released by Abel on three separate mixtapes, dating back to 2010.  These older songs are structured in mostly chronological order on Trilogy, with the first disc comprised primarily of tracks from House of Balloons ( March 2011), the second disc from Thursday (August 2011), and the third disc from Echoes of Silence (December 2011).  This ordering of the tracks clarifies an issue that was already becoming apparent with each subsequent Weeknd mixtape release over the course of 2011 – the new material hasn’t really matched or improved upon the quality of House of Balloons.  With each new mixtape release, HoB looked stronger and more unique as a whole, bringing up the worry that maybe, just maybe, Abel had peaked in the beginning.  The fact that pretty much all of the new, non-mixtape material on Trilogy is underwhelming does not help to assuage the concern about ‘diminishing returns’.

Hopefully these concerns are unfounded, and the mixed results from Abel’s more recent efforts are simply the result of an artist continuing to grow and develop in the early stages of a career.  The Weeknd release have offered a unique and enthralling new voice in the musical landscape, and it is exciting to think of the potential highs yet to be reached by an artist so endeared to the idea of holding nothing back.  No matter what happens, there will at least be Trilogy – a sprawling compilation of sexually charged tales that, in the right spots, features some of the prettiest dirty music you’ll ever hear.

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