INSIDE THE WEEKND'S MUST-LISTEN ALBUM, 'DAWN FM'
BY EMILY NIGHMAN | FEB 3, 2023
The 2022 album ‘Dawn FM’ is The Weeknd’s most recent release, but it is far from being one of his most popular albums. On the multi-Grammy-Award-winning artist’s Spotify page, neither the album nor any of its singles appears under ‘popular releases,’ a heading that includes six songs with over one billion streams. So why give this album a deeper listen?
The Weeknd at the 2021 Juno Awards. Photo: Emma McIntyre/NBC
For one, it has received four nominations at this year’s Juno Awards, a yearly celebration of Canadian music hosted by the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. These are in addition to the Torontonian singer’s nominations for the Fan Choice award and Artist of the Year alongside fan favourites like Avril Lavigne, Shawn Mendes, and Tate McRae. With over 30 Juno nominations under his belt, Abel Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd, has consistently swept entire categories and taken home over a dozen awards since he won Breakthrough Artist of the Year in 2013, solidifying him as a force to be reckoned with in Canada and abroad.
More importantly, however, it’s easily one of the most interesting mainstream pop albums to come out of 2022. In a complicated industry where songs compete to become viral TikTok sounds and artists attempt to keep up with ever-changing trends, ‘Dawn FM’ is personal, philosophical, and vastly different from most other albums hitting the top 100.
‘Dawn FM’ album cover. Credit: Republic Records
The concept album takes us on a journey to the afterlife with the host of 103.5 Dawn FM, a fantastical adult contemporary radio station, as our guide. Zany comedian and fellow Canadian, Jim Carrey, makes a surprise cameo as the DJ host from beyond with a mysterious and ominous performance that’s at once unsettling and intriguing. (Think Vincent Price in Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ meets Samuel L. Jackson in Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing.’) Submerging the listener in spacey, dream-like synths, the album intro sends you hurtling down a dark, techno-futurist tunnel toward ‘the light.’
The first official song, ‘Gasoline,’ then launches head-first into nihilist and existentialist themes as The Weeknd sings about falling ‘into emptiness’ and ‘staring into the abyss.’ Despite this bleak imagery, you’ll get lost in the punchy beat (which my music producer boyfriend, Matt, tells me is created by a LinnDrum, a favourite of Peter Gabriel and Prince) and mind-melting synths reminiscent of the super-8 world of ‘Stranger Things,’ season 1.
The Weeknd has long been credited for bringing back the 80s with its trademark ‘splashy’ drums, ‘dreamy vocals,’ and hyper synths. But with the artist’s faux British accent and talk-singing rhythm, he’s specifically indebted to the influence of New Wave. This genre came out of the 1970s punk movement with a slightly softened edginess characterized by irreverent vocals and power keyboards, as well as gender-bending fashion, messy hair, and lots of eyeliner. (This is a criminally brief overview of the influential genre, so to truly understand what I’m talking about, check out bands like Talking Heads, The Human League, Duran Duran, and Eurythmics.) This sound is a bit of a departure for The Weeknd, but for me, it’s a welcome nod to a genre that we haven’t heard in a long time.
I'm Emily Nighman, an arts and culture writer, digital content creator, and founder and editor of this website. I set out to discover everything I can about movies, TV shows, music, books, food, travel, design, and more. Then I bring it all together and share it right here with you.
Duran Duran (L-R: Andy Taylor, Nick Rhodes (front), John Taylor (back), Roger Taylor, Simon Le Bon). Photo: Peter Noble/Redferns
Early on, you’ll also hear the extended album version of the smash-hit single, ‘Take My Breath.’ At over 5 minutes long, the track still features the radio edit’s catchy lyrics and the singer’s distinctive falsetto R&B sound. But the seamless transition from the previous tune, ‘How Do I Make You Love Me?,’ hypnotizes you with its repetitive kick drum and tight exhalations so that once the lengthy keyboard solo hits at 3:20, you welcome being swallowed up by the cyberpunk melody.
This is followed by another popular track, ‘Sacrifice,’ which has garnered over 200 million streams on Spotify alone. The impact of the King of Pop on this album once again shines through as the song’s intro immediately evokes the opening to ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ off the multi-platinum, top-selling record ‘Thriller.’ Incredibly, this song leads into another surprise feature on the next track, ‘A Tale by Quincy,’ narrated by none other than the illustrious producer and tastemaker Quincy Jones, who discusses his childhood and trouble with love.
By this point in the album, The Weeknd’s surrealist songwriting and gripping production by master producer Max Martin will have taken you on a strange and fantastic journey. Now we’ve come to my favourite song off the record, the hugely underrated ‘Out of Time.’
But first, a brief tangent…. A few weeks ago, Matt came to me with a new discovery (at least for us) called city pop, a genre that emerged from 1980s Tokyo and whose influence can still be heard in the explosion of lo-fi hip hop on YouTube. According to Cat Zhang at Pitchfork, as middle-class Japanese embraced globalization and technology, including luxury fashion and the Sony Walkman, this music style became the ‘soundtrack to this cosmopolitan lifestyle.’ The genre combines influences from American jazz, R&B, and funk and conjures up images of urban freedom as young people drove and strolled through downtown listening to music on the go. The first song Matt played for me was ‘Midnight Pretenders’ by Tomoko Aran and it was immediately familiar even though I’d never heard it before.
Fuyū-Kūkan, featuring ‘Midnight Pretenders.’ Credit: Warner Music Japan