Just over a year ago, barely anyone knew who the Weeknd was. And it’s a marvel of marketing – or just a crazy reclamation of private celebrity – that with three rabidly slobbered-over albums, a Polaris Music Prize nomination for the first, House of Balloons, a New York Times review of a Guelph (?!) show, the cover of Exclaim’s year-end issue, major writing credits on Drake’s latest album and no interviews to date… We still really don’t know who Abel Tesfaye is.
So all that’s left to talk about when it comes to the elusive, 21-year-old singer – born in Scarborough, of Ethiopian extraction – is the music. And isn’t that what it’s all about, man? Except, listening to what Tesfaye sings about in that silken, Pied Piper falsetto cut through with lupine menace, you might not like what you hear. You probably won’t. But it sounds really cool, all bass rumbles and lonely echoes and so much partying and drugs you’d probably lose your job and friends and decimate your credit rating if you tried to do the same. There’s also the cast of supine, stoned zombie-women shuffling through each record to reconcile, whose legs willingly part after being plied with substances and who morph into threats only when Tesfaye’s coming down and feeling vulnerable.
Given all this terrifying, likely problematic stuff, the Weeknd’s trilogy-completing EP Echoes of Silence trended for over 24 hours on Twitter after its release late Wednesday night. It has probably already been written up in places where people who don’t listen to music read about music. The Weeknd will be obsequiously praised as the future of R&B music – because Tesfaye is a black singer, not because he’s making quantifiable, canonical R&B – and his parasitic, strung out platitudes dismissed as artistic license.
Knowing nothing about Tesfaye except that he thrills people with his music, music I acknowledge a woman would be vilified for making, I think this is how it should be.
Echoes of Silence opens, too appropriately, with a cover of Michael Jackson’s tangled groupie-baiting anthem “Dirty Diana.” Incredibly, when this song was first released in 1988 the media made MJ out to be a seedy misogynist. And so it’s poignant that the Weeknd begins Echoes with the dubsteppy, soaring cover of “D.D.,” since it’s business as usual for him. Musically, it’s karaoke-like in just how much Tesfaye echoes Michael’s falsetto, trembling with feeling at all the right parts. But it’s also the best example of the live Weeknd experience.
Watching the Weeknd live, which you should, his choruses go from rebloggable Tumblr neologisms to poignant-when-you’re-drunk sing-alongs. (It will be good to witness when he performs borrowed French sorrow from Serge Gainsbourg on “Montreal,” which samples a 1964 song performed by France Gall, “Laisser Tomber Les Filles.”) The spindly, digitized production suits headphones and moods and dimmed light trysts, but on stage, the weed hangover parts and compositions are recast into soaring, bombastic arena-rock-type suites.
Perhaps pointing to a more visible career in 2012, Echoes veers toward more live instrumentation, specifically heavy guitar work, as opposed to programmed production. It’s still effect-heavy, seen in the progressive warped vocals on “Initiation,” but there’s more of an attempt to parse out songs that might resonate in-person.
And, most importantly, Echoes is the album where our miscreant narrator finally acknowledges – like they never do on reality MTV – the ride he’s been on for the past year. If House of Balloons was the introduction and Thursday the sustained moment of celebrity, Echoes of Silence is a sordid acknowledgement of where he’s been and what’s next. We finally found out how he’s paying his bills: “I got show money baby,” he tells a stripper who “picked his voice to dance to” on Clams Casino-produced “The Fall.” And, on the following track he acknowledges his own fame, telling some poor girl, or maybe us greedy listeners, “You just want me because I’m next.”
Anupa Mistry writes regularly about music for Toronto Standard. Follow her on Twitter at @_anupa.