Since his breakout year in 2011, The Weeknd (born Abel Tesfaye) has exhibited a keen interest in nostalgia. The intro to his third Trilogy mixtape Echoes Of Silence was an Illangelo-produced rework of Michael Jackson’s classic 1988 song “Dirty Diana,” but “Wanderlust” from his 2013 debut album Kiss Land was the first full-fledged 1980s pop record the Toronto native ever released. Beauty Behind The Madness doubled down on that retro aesthetic with tracks like “Can’t Feel My Face,” “In The Night,” and “As You Are,” and following the commercial success of his sophomore album, The Weeknd started incorporating an increasing amount of nostalgic sonics into his releases, hence the string of hit records like “I Feel It Coming,” “Rockin’,” “Blinding Lights,” and “Save Your Tears” over the past six years.
When sharing “Take My Breath” last August, it was evident that Abel had already perfected his unique brand of pop nostalgia, but the key question going into the decorated singer’s fifth studio album was whether pulling inspiration from past decades yet again was a formula that would be both impressive and compelling. Well, with the release of Dawn FM on Friday, January 7, 2022, The Weeknd bet on himself — as every artist should do — and doubled down on that signature sound while also sharing what is arguably the most ambitious commercial release of his career so far.
Focusing on the music alone, Dawn FM is a concept album that, narratively speaking, is leagues ahead of After Hours and the entirety of The Weeknd’s discography. The story of his previous studio album, for example, was far easier to understand by listening to the music in tandem with its accompanying visuals, but Dawn FM is more than capable of standing on its own. While you should most certainly have the “Take My Breath,” “Sacrifice,” and “Gasoline” music videos on your watch list, it’s worth something that The Weeknd is able to convey the central message of Dawn FM through the format and structure of the record.
Set within the transmitted frequency of the fictional — yet loosely Toronto-inspired — radio station 103.5 Dawn FM,the album is the music that’s playing while you’re stuck in the most infamous waiting room of all time: Purgatory. The disc jockey is Jim Carrey, who only plans on spinning groovy tunes from the music industry’s favorite alternative Canadian popstar. Carrey excels in his role, performing one of the most vivid and creative album narrations in recent memory, and he’s also the person to introduce Dawn FM’s concept on the first track, saying “You are now listening to 103.5 Dawn FM/You’ve been in the dark for way too long/It’s time to walk into the light.” Religious undertones and the notion of fate immediately ensue, but to ease listeners into the album experience, Jim Carrey hypnotically invites them to “relax and enjoy another hour of commercial free yourself music.” And after careful consideration, there’s no better way to describe The Weeknd’s latest effort.
The record-breaking artist consciously made Dawn FM distinctly different from a commercial-free broadcast, in terms of literally having a commercial incorporated into the twelfth track “Every Angel is Terrifying” and metaphorically sticking to the polished, retro pop soundscape that has scored him three 8x platinum singles. What makes Dawn FM differ from a commercial-ridden, top 40 radio program, however, is the “free yourself” aspect, as both The Weeknd and Jim Carrey unabashedly dig deep into the album’s more existential topics, from human tendencies like longing for acceptance from others and regretting one’s past to mortal concerns like the importance of life and what happens after people die.
Dawn FM is a combination of music that makes you move and music that moves you, and although The Weeknd is typically compared to Michael Jackson, that approach has led to newly drawn parallels between the XO artist’s new release and Prince’s iconic 1984 album Purple Rain, both of which explore the concepts of forgiveness and the afterlife. While that’s an understandable comparison, it’s best to take as many steps back as necessary and weigh Dawn FM’s pros and cons without mentioning it in the same breath as one of the greatest albums of all time.
While conceptually enthralling, Dawn FM’s most glaring flaw is the byproduct of The Weeknd’s faithful marriage to the sound of the 80s. The first 22 minutes of the album are so incredibly dense with that aesthetic that the high from the standout electropop track “Gasoline” has already diminished by the time you wonder if you accidentally hit repeat on “Take My Breath” when “Sacrifice” starts playing. Perhaps it’s just due to the Dawn FM’s premise, but there are many times throughout the album where it actually feels like purgatory, with the endless pop groove feeling far more eerie than entertaining. Thankfully, Jim Carrey interrupts the broadcast halfway through the album to transition the album into a more sonically diverse stretch of tunes, which he refers to as “thirty minutes of easy listening to some slow tracks.”
From that point on, Dawn FM rolls out some of its most anticipated tracks, including the celebratory Tyler, The Creator-assisted “Here We Go…Again” and “I Heard You’re Married” with Lil Wayne, yet after making it three songs deep into the “easy listening,” things quickly start to feel monotonous again. Once again, an interlude of sorts refocuses the project and prevents it from dropping off completely, and instead of another performance by Jim Carrey, the ethereal commercial/skit/spoken word performance on “Every Angel Is Terrifying” is what makes Dawn FM exciting again. The lively Lil Wayne-featured song leads into “Less Than Zero,” an exceptionally strong final track from The Weeknd, and the “Phantom Regret by Jim” outro is the masterful conclusion that brings everything full circle.
At worst, Dawn FM is a two-sided album that can’t choose between being a collection of lush, nostalgic pop songs or a meaningful record that’s meant to be contemplated, but even that assessment is far too harsh. At best, Dawn FM is a redefining moment for The Weeknd as he embarks on the second decade of his record-breaking career, but ultimately, only time will tell. For now, the Weeknd’s attention to detail and earnest effort on every bridge, verse, beat transition, and radio-themed skit has yielded a strangely beautiful project that serves as another great addition to his increasingly remarkable catalog. It’s far too soon to make any haphazard claims about where it ranks amongst The Weeknd’s other works, but Dawn FM is his most imaginative, haunting, and thought-provoking release in a very long time.