The 80s pop influence in pop music of recent years has been utilized so often that it feels less like a resurgence and more of exploitation as of late. The Weeknd is also no stranger to this sound, employing it on his brilliant 2020 studio album After Hours and scoring himself the top Billboard Hot 100 song of all time with “Blinding Lights” – a glitzy dance-pop track that directly channelled the best elements of its influences.
Instead of reinventing himself after reaching the top of the world, The Weeknd decided to double down on the 80s influence. Well, I say ‘influence’ but a listen through Dawn FM reveals it’s more than just him borrowing stylistic inspirations, Weeknd damn near time travels back to the era itself to bring us an album so confident in its mastery over the sound, you’d think his team uncovered it from a lost hard drive somewhere.
With After Hours, The Weeknd had established himself as auteur – creating a universe with established characters and arcs that make up the lore of the record, while still allowing the music to stand front-and-centre without any obstructions (*ahem* Kacey Musgraves *ahem*). Dawn FM is in a similar vein. However, instead of pulling from well-known movie references, this album takes on the concept of a radio show – hosted by none other than Jim Carrey.
“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 and accept your fate with open arms,” Jim opens on the title track, setting the stage for a hopeful release from the self-destruction on After Hours. We’re led into the program with “Gasoline”, a dejected opener that sees Weeknd wrestling with his alter ego (thus the use of a lower-pitched vocal modulation) on the tragedy of his life and the eventual hopefulness of carrying on. On its chorus, Weeknd goes as far as to sing “It’s only safe for you and me/I know you won’t let me OD“; a far cry from the harrowing toxicity of AH‘s “Faith” where he asserts “But if I OD/I want you to OD right beside me“.
It aims the album’s themes in a refreshing direction, even if the song itself comes off slightly stiff due to his alter ego’s jarring vocals. Luckily, it’s the only time on Dawn FM where he does this before fully committing to becoming an 80s dance-synthpop icon on the album’s first quarter.
Produced by Max Martin, legendary pop producer who last worked with Weeknd on Starboy, and Oneohtrix Point Never, a synthpop veteran who’s recently best known for his work on the Good Time OST, Dawn FM feels like the perfect mashup of the two’s styles – intricate synth work alongside inexplicably catchy elements. The 3-track run of “How Do I Make You Love Me?”, “Take My Breath” and “Sacrifice” is a stellar example of these qualities.
On past Weeknd projects, the production mostly takes a backseat to give him ample space to bask in the spotlight. However, here the production is as integral to the experience as Weeknd’s high-spirited performances. Each of these songs has sections that see him ducking out of the way to bask us in synthpop gloriousness, which helps hammer home the impression that his commitment to recreating the sound is every bit as genuine and masterful.
Let’s not forget – the TRANSITIONS. Just like how the best radio shows keep their audience on their toes with a never-ending escapade, Dawn FM elicits the same feeling. It’s likely that this quality was born out of his experience on his Apple Music Momento Mori radio show (unfortunately, I’ve never tuned in), but it’s still another sign of his confidence at pulling off the concept.
After the hype, we’re greeted with a Quincy Jones interlude – the legendary producer behind most of Michael Jackson’s most iconic tracks, a foreshadowing before Weeknd blesses us with his greatest and most Michael Jackson-like offering yet “Out Of Time”.
The best song off Dawn FM. From the “Human Nature”-esque keyboards, whistling flutes and a heartening performance from the Weeknd, the song is so on-the-nose it feels like an overdramatic wink to anyone who’s been making Michael Jackson comparisons ever since his cover of “Dirty Diana”. At the end of the track, Jim Carrey returns to inform us that we’re in for “thirty minutes of easy listening to some slow tracks” which, unfortunately, also marks a dip in quality for the album.
The Weeknd is no stranger to ballads, some of his best songs are ballads! However, the unwavering commitment to its theme is a double-edged sword for the album. By the time the second half of the album rolls in, the novelty had already worn thin so track after track of similar production and consistent Weeknd crooning meant Dawn FM got a bit…boring.
It doesn’t help that both features from Tyler, The Creator and Lil Wayne are lacklustre. They fail to bring their usual energy and feel restricted by the subdued nature of their tracks. It’s disappointing regardless of how well the tracks themselves fit snuggly into the tracklist.
It’s not all disappointment though. Dawn FM‘s final saving grace are its two closing tracks “Less Than Zero” and “Phantom Regret by Jim”. The former is a euphoric jam that’s undercut by Weeknd’s heartbroken yearn for an ex-lover’s attention. It’s also perhaps the closest thing we’ll get to “Blinding Lights” part 2 on the album, as the most throwback-and-upbeat cut on the record. The latter is a spoken word section by Jim Carrey that encourages us to find peace within ourselves in a world of seemingly never-ending chaos.
Both tracks serve as a beacon of hope after a downcast stretch and ties up Dawn FM‘s thematic concept of navigating purgatory. Despite my reservations with the tracklist from “Here We Go…Again” to “I Heard You’re Married”, it’s not hard to feel what The Weeknd was going for and the ambitiousness of it pays off. The blissful release at the end of the record marks a decisive end to the narrative he started from After Hours – a slow understanding and acceptance of oneself after a lifetime of regret, shame and chaos.