It’s hard not to look at ‘After Hours’ as the self-isolation sadboi soundtrack we need to get us through these dark days. Though the corresponding short film and music videos of a drug-fueled Vegas bender were released long before we were confined to our studios and one bedrooms, it’s difficult not to spark memories of a simpler time: when bars were open, drinks were flowing and bar fights and broken noses were just part of another late Thursday night.
It’s been nearly two years to the dot since the forgettably small format ‘My Dear Melancholy’, and since then Abel Ferrara’s been diversifying the capabilities of his star power. He’s dropped a song here and there on the likes of everything from albums for Gesaffelstein and Game of Thrones. He launched an incubator for Toronto artists and scored a Beats 1 radio show, but perhaps the best stepping stone to the inception of his current phase was playing a douchey, charismatic, and coke addled 2012 version of himself in A24’s high octane thriller Uncut Gems. Whether it was caricature or art imitating life, The Weeknd not only linked with score composer Oneohtrix Point Never, who greatly informed the album’s sound, it gave him the opportunity to theatrically get his ideas out through the process of characterization.
In keeping with his signature musical style and lyric, After Hours offers slick million dollar production - a near requirement for modern day urban records. While there’s not much left that’s surprising or unexpected from the artist known for his perfect pitch, soft and angelic croon, and inwardly sad hedonism, there are some unique touches that deliver. Tesfaye doubles down on his latter phase of signature 80’s synthpop style throughout rather than the post-Drake R&B that put him on the international map.
‘Blinding Lights’ the danceable lead single gives a much needed breath of relief from the ominous side A. It also holds a pen credit from the iconic Max Martin who doctored a total of five songs on After Hours, reteaming in hopes for another ‘Can’t Feel My Face’, though it trades the clever drug references and allusions to Thriller for a beat that is more indebted to Flock of Seagulls. “In Your Eyes” is a slice of cheesy pop seemingly motivated by the high streaming numbers of Starboy cut “I Feel It Coming” and along with the similar Martin-written “Save Your Tears”, are terrible excursions from an otherwise moody record.
Though Tesfaye doesn’t feature anyone on the album’s track list, his rolodex of top shelf artists contribute to production and writing capacities to both middling and terrific results. Metro Boomin enters for a zen ballad complete with surgical 808s on “Escape from LA” before delivering a great post 2am club banger with “Faith”, however it’s the production that delivers on all three songs rather than any lyric or chart that unfortunately results in a pedestrian performance from its star. More impressively, the interlude titled “Repeat After Me” brings together OPN with studio mastermind Kevin Parker for a lush wall of sound where Abel once again takes a backseat to two sonic geniuses.
It’s a concept album, loosely, and one that tracks the deterioration of a past relationship. But whether Tesfaye is playing himself or a character is unclear. Lyrically, it’s not particularly innovative as we hear the same lines from the predictable ‘I just want your body’ to the recycled ‘Models getting faded’ that are becoming a bit of an eye-roll (if they weren’t already). The objectifying and misogynistic view of the women in his life - whether they be ex-girlfriends or the aforementioned models - is peppered throughout the album, most notably in the self-indulgent ‘Heartless’, where he sings ‘Never need a bitch, I'm what a bitch need’ and in ‘Escape from LA’ where he brags about having sex in the studio with no-name girls that all look the same. Maybe he deserved the bloody, broken nose after all.
Another recurring theme throughout After Hours is a sense of nostalgia. The days when Tesfaye was 22, fresh off his blog fire starter House of Balloons playing smaller gigs in mostly Canadian venues, dodging the press and giving very few glimpses into his private life is depicted in one of the records highlights. “Snowchild” is a visceral portrait of life in Ontario before OVO and XO had truly taken over the city, and subsequently the world.
‘After Hours’ abandons some of his more recent commercial club tracks for a more introspective, albeit foreseeable album. The Weeknd has entered a CEO like position in his career for better or for worse. Once a showman and vocalist of considerable power, he’s now more of an assembler, one with the ability to still tell a story, but not without the crutch of surrounding himself with geniuses in the process.