2020 has been, for the most part, a year of musical hiatus.
With the pandemic forcing most of humanity to self-isolate, the music industry has decided to shift, postpone, and cancel a large number of upcoming releases and events.
Amidst the chaos and global panic, however, there is The Weeknd.
On the eve of his new full-length studio album, 30-year old Abel Tesfaye announced that the record will go on to release as planned.
And so, a dark, gloomy, self-demonizing shadow world of a record became a cathartic escape for music fans all around the globe.
Transmitting unfiltered emotions of fear, hopelessness, and loss-of-self, After Hours is an eerily authentic record.
Its overarching theme deals with the behavior and pain of a human psyche tortured by its toxic surroundings, Tesfaye presenting a universe where he has been desensitized by the American dream.
On Too Late, a track best described by its airy synths and UK Garage sound, he declares: “I can’t trust where I live anymore / We’re in Hell, it’s disguised as a paradise with flashing lights”.
Its haunting, Dead Silence-esque outro further blackens the forlorn nature of the heavily-referenced Los Angeles, and the confessional nature of the song presents the feeling of hopelessness present in the mind of individuals no longer following the humane shadow of their characters, “It’s way too late to save our souls, baby” repeated on the track’s hard-hitting, underground-style chorus.
Tesfaye also admits to his wrongdoings when it comes to the relationship with his partner, who is presented as the only glimmer of hope in the sunken city of his mind.
It’s one of many moments where his sinful nature takes a backseat to his desperation, addressing this individual as their light, begging for the help of the only pure character in a world overrun by demons: “Don’t let me drown”.
The ultimate desire to break free from the chains of Sin City is addressed in the fittingly titled Escape from LA.
Its songwriting is simple, yet clever and urgent; the chorus revolves around two similar lines addressing the subject – “Take me out L.A. / Take me out of L.A.”.
The duality of the lyricism is easily interpreted – he either gets out of the city and the community that’s wrong for him, or it destroys him completely – “This place will be the end of me”.
The song also offers dark and detailed insight into personal mementos of Tesfaye’s high-life, referencing his opulence through his luxurious Rolls Royce cabin (“got the ceiling with the stars”), and presents moments of sexual escapism as he holds onto the one person that makes him feel alive when he has sex with them in his studio.
Shortly after, however, this escape is unable to offer him any more comfort – “She’s all mine / Until he calls her line” indicating that even the short moments of ecstasy and delirium are followed by the cruel realization that they are not only his to enjoy.
With the help of Snowchild, Abel looks back on his beginnings and compares it to his now – this offers the record’s arguably most personal and authentic songwriting.
Its strongest point is just that – the strong presence of the artist throughout the track: “Used to pray when I was sixteen / If I didn't make it then I'd probably make my wrist bleed / Not to mislead, turn my nightmares into big dreams”.
It is a relatively stripped-down, ethereal, and contemplative track, on which he presents the moment he became disillusioned of the infamous La La Land indefinitely – “Cali was the mission, but now a n*gga leaving”.
The title track presents Abel as he falls back on his old habits and desperately tries to cling onto the person they have hurt as a result of such a misstep: “Where are you now that I need you most? (…) / Sorry that I broke your heart”.
The aggressive drum sample rhythmically looping on an atmospheric background which sounds like the soundtrack of a long walk through abandoned neighborhoods of Los Angeles contrasts Tesfaye’s haunting falsetto on the track.
As he sings “This house is not a home without my baby”, the frantic distress signals of a man who has hit rock bottom pierce through the muddy, industrialized stratosphere of the track, creating a grotesque blend of melancholy and fear.
His cries for help further amplify with Alone Again, Faith, and the grimly-titled closer track Until I Bleed Out.
Faith opens as one would expect the music of an intergalactic fight circle would – an electronic, synth-driven buildup explodes into one of the most frantic and unfiltered songs on the record.
“I feel everything / I feel everything from my body to my soul” – sings the harrowed musician, with a straightforward reveal that under the layer of Hollywood wealth and luxury lies a vulnerable, emotionally receptive human being – “I feel everything / When I’m coming down is the most I feel alone”.
The track also contains perhaps the boldest one-liner of the album: “And if I OD, I want you to OD right beside me”.
While a deeply disturbing and perhaps problematic sentiment, this sort of emotional transparency is what helps contour the deepest corridors of one’s corrupted ego and existence.
Such lyrics and the dark, self-villainizing tone elevate the track to be one of the most significant highlights of the record’s storytelling – right next to Snowchild, Escape from LA, and the title track.
Opening track Alone Again and closer Until I Bleed Out feature Tesfaye’s fear of death and conceptualized downfall, respectfully.
While Alone Again, a track with a trap percussion and dark layer of synth serves as a grim welcome to the After Hours universe and the virulent troubles nesting in Tesfaye’s mind about his possible demise (“I took too much / I don’t wanna die”), the closing track transforms the terror and fear into eerie serenity, Tesfaye contemplating about death being a possible way of terminating the pain and injury of his life’s actions.
He is willing to lose the glory and euphoria of a hedonistic life – “I don’t wanna touch the sky no more / I don’t wanna get high anymore” sounding like the dying wishes of a man who is so deeply unsatisfied with his lifestyle that he’s willing to give up every link in the chain of elements that represent his current existence.
Production-wise, an arcade-style synthesizer gradually loses its sound while the musician searches for a way out.
It is a haunting, tragic analogy of the album’s pessimistic tone and the story’s foreseeable outcome on which Tesfaye abruptly ends the record.
Hardest to Love is one of the bittersweet moments on the album where Tesfaye discards the dramatic, villainous lyricism for the direct self-expression of regret.
The track, driven by melancholic synthesizers that sound like they belong on the end credits of a 1980’s coming-of-age film, and the high-energy drum and bass on the verses is heart-wrenchingly honest.
The singer admits to his lifestyle choices affecting his relationship, singing “I’ve been the hardest to love” in a soft, apologetic tone.
Moreover, the sense of guilt lingers in him after seeing how their partner would rather continue living their life beside him than leave a toxic relationship: “I can’t believe you want me / After all the heartbreak, / After all I’ve done”.
The ethereal, dreamlike synths of the track then transition into Scared to Live, a track seemingly ripped out of the 80’s power ballad section of the Great American Songbook, its production boasting loud, pulsating drum machines and the soft melody of an accompanying synth line.
Tesfaye confesses how his ways left his lover afraid of experiencing life and relationships again, then proceeds to sing a send-off that samples Elton John’s Your Song: “I hope you know that / I’ve been praying that you find yourself”.
Its signature cheesiness does not taint the mood of the record, its explosive chorus only offering a much-needed sigh of relief a continuous chain of auditory claustrophobia.
The Repeat After Me interlude, crafted by Kevin Parker features the Tame Impala frontman’s signature psychedelia and synth-heavy production, which is perhaps the only saving grace of the track.
In a desperate attempt to convince his lover into believing that they still have feelings for him, the singer continuously repeats himself, singing “You don’t love him / You don’t love him”.
It is the only serious dud After Hours sees, the track erasing the previous character development Abel’s character went through.
Perhaps it adds to the record by presenting a new moment where he falls back on his old ways.
Either way, the sonic attempt of emotional brainwash contributes little novelty to the overall body of work and is, for the most part, a forgettable moment on the record.
While the aforementioned tracks offer a more sorrowful sonic universe to the landscape of After Hours, the remainder, while still contributing to the dark image of the record, serve as digestible, hook-driven dance therapy.
Heartless features a grisly, fist-pumping trap beat and showcases the corrupted existence of Tesfaye’s diabolical character, tainted by the cold-blooded City of Angels.
It is a three-minute-long rush of adrenaline which gradually fades on a bridge where the world of Hedonism collapses in around Tesfaye.
As a result, the initial lyricism of “Never need a bitch / I’m what a bitch need” transforms into “You never gave up on me / I never know what you see”.
It is a cinematic reminder of how, even at his most artificially bewitched self, Tesfaye longs to escape the destructive side of his character.
Tracks Blinding Lights, Save Your Tears, and In Your Eyes mark the electro-dance side of the album, each more infectious than the other.
Blinding Lights transitions from a deep, menacing synth to an ‘80s-esque A-ha and modern Synthwave-inspired production, making it the album’s ultimate earworm.
It is no wonder that the mastermind behind the chart-topping single is none other than Max Martin, puppet master of pop and pioneer of melodic math.
It is a grandiose, high-budget track that offers the most accessible insight onto the danger-ridden cosmos of the After Hours: “I’m running out of time / Cause I can see the sun light up the sky / So I hit the road in overdrive” being a metaphorical staple of the paranoia present throughout the record and a love letter to the high-speed Outrun sound at the same time.
The ‘80s mania continues its streak on the saxophone-heavy In Your Eyes, a groovy, addictive dancefloor anthem on which Tesfaye confronts the fact that his partner is hiding the pain caused by him.
Save Your Tears addresses the emotional turmoil of his partner; the singer insisting that tears should not be wasted on him, yet upon further inspection, the moody, atmospheric, synth-and-drum driven track reveals that he still wants to have them in his life.
Although being the relatively carefree tracks of the emotionally broken nature of the record, they still contribute to its overall sentimental cohesion; particularly the piercing cry of the timeless saxophone on In Your Eyes, capturing the highest frequencies of love and addiction’s passionate turbulence.
All things considered, After Hours is a well-crafted, well-written record.
Tesfaye’s artistic identity and personal branding shines on almost every track and helps elevate a record produced by those best in the business even further.
Aside from the ironclad use of complex and gutsy songwriting, it shines for its ability to package the music with the retrofuturistic sounds extracted from the neon-lit world of the 1980s without relying too much on nostalgia and familiarity.
It does not feel gimmicky or dishonest – the sounds and poetry on After Hours are well-tailored, and sans a few short seconds of sonic monotony on a couple of tracks, After Hours is an exemplary piece of musical brilliance through and through.