Brandon Hill

The stories we tell today, shape tomorrow.

Jan 14, 2022
Published on: Blog Post
2 min read
Illustration by Brandon Hill
Illustration by Brandon Hill

Early into the last decade, Abel Tesfaye was a faceless pop sensation. At the cusp of this one, The Weeknd is the face of pop stardom. The unmasking of Tesfaye brought a face to the vocalist behind 2011’s mysteriously alluring House of Balloons, but the intrigue could never be shed. The Weeknd is larger than life. Even the origin of his stage name is draped in enchanting, folksy lore — inspired by the weekend the 17-year-old and his friend spontaneously dropped out of high school and left home, never to return. It’s a story that can be romanticized, understood through association, yet when the synths and snares kick, it’s not Tesfaye’s world we’re plunged into, it’s The Weeknd’s. Tesfaye may not look back, but The Weeknd certainly does.

His fifth studio album, Dawn FM, is presented on radio waves soaring through purgatory, picked up and hosted by a Jim Carrey that’s more “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” than “Ace Ventura.” While Carrey’s gentle voice urges listener and performer alike to ease into the moment and let go of Earthly concerns, The Weeknd’s reminiscing on romance and regret encourages anything but. Were he to be reincarnated, surely the karmic weight of longing for ex-lovers and self-scorned desires would see him reborn a brooding pop star yet again. 

Drifting toward the light at the end of the tunnel, propelled by a journey of dark synths, he refers to the afterlife as “the future” — inevitable but yet to come. It makes sense that, to The Weeknd, death sounds like an optimistic, and equally yet to come, version of the future once glimpsed on a pastel dance floor in the ‘80s. His purgatory is a melancholy of glamour so unreachable by mortals that our instinct is… to dance. “For your love, I try / But I don’t wanna sacrifice my time,” he sings on “Sacrifice,” a snappy, back-alley leather jacket number. 

When you have everything and more, there are only two currencies left worth trading in — time and love — and time only because it can either be filled with love or filled with its absence. The Weeknd is well aware that physical intimacy is always within reach, but he battles with the trade-off of finding real romantic fulfillment. It’s that fulfillment of an incomplete spirit that he strives for on Dawn FM. The magnetism of a missing half tugs against his ascent to the light — a longing that transcends life, a yearning that surpasses dissolution of the ego, or perhaps prolongs it. 

Time stands still on “Take My Breath.” If your life flashes before your eyes with your last exhale, then The Weeknd’s lingering on the love he’s shared is fed by that eternity. “Take my breath away / make it last forever, babe… Bring me close to heaven babe,” this is how he sees love at its most complete: timeless, breathless, close to heaven but not quite there. The memory of its potency — the truth of its temporariness — tethers the spirit to desire. Against Carrey’s advice at the album’s start that “it’s time to walk into the light / and accept your fate with open arms,” desire keeps the light just out of reach. 

As he looks back, the anxieties grow. “I don’t deserve someone loyal to me / don’t you think I see? / and I don’t want to be a prisoner to who I used to be,” The Weeknd serenades on “Is There Someone Else?,” his suspicions born of projection. He dies like he lived, questioning if he’s worthy of completion. The less we let go of, the more we’re left holding when it’s all over. Love doesn’t just fulfill Earthly desires but eliminates them. 

The Weeknd sings about love as the filling of existential emptiness, the source of the hang-ups that hold him back from the light and tie him to life and thus rebirth. “But I know you're right for me, ecstasy / I keep coming back for more / I think that you would die for me, destiny,” he cries out on “Don’t Break My Heart.” In the immediate sense, he comes back to his partner in search of ecstasy, but the feeling isn’t physical. The ecstasy is born from a rightness, completeness tragically withheld by heartbreak. A brush with death in the discotheque highlights the double meaning. It’s ecstasy on his mind as he sores through purgatory. The memory of ecstasy and the awareness of its absence is reason enough to return to life. By asking his companion to die for him, with him, he asks them to save him from the cycle of rebirth. If his second half were to follow him, there would be nothing left to long for. The Weeknd loves wholly, but selfishly.  

Illustration by Brandon Hill
Illustration by Brandon Hill

A mid-album sketch nods to the way that we subconsciously learn our behaviors from trauma and therefore pass that trauma on to others. In “A Tale By Quincy,” world-class record producer and composer, Quincy Jones, tells a heartfelt tale about how the institutionalization of his mother damaged his ability to build lasting relationships with women. An unbroken chain of trauma not only contributes to our own regret, and to the weight that holds us back in death, but accumulates on those around us in unexpected ways. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that The Weeknd’s need to be completed is the reason he’s never completed. Hindsight is so potent the moment lies out of focus. Moving from fling to fling, he’s constantly chasing the ecstasy of the one that came before, ensuring that he’s always left with the desire to revitalize something lost.  

“I can’t get it out of my head / No, I can’t shake this feeling that crawls in my bed,” he sings on the closing song, “Less Than Zero.” Brighter than the rest of the album, the song’s climbing chords impart a rising sensation, but the sense of freedom comes from falling. “I tried to fight it, but I’d rather be free,” he challenges the premise that the ideal death is one that erases. In this moment, he falls away from the light and, despite Carrey’s glowing advertisements, away from the afterlife. His hang-ups are likely to see him reborn and then re-live the pain of chasing a satisfaction he’ll unknowingly withhold from himself. The cycle is an endless one. Dawn FM begs the question, is this how you want to die?   

The Weeknd overpowers his fall from the light with an optimistic sound. It’s romantic to endlessly pursue love, whether it's fruitful or not. But as the story ends and the synths turn dark yet again, Carrey returns with a tone that practically scolds the heart for dancing in triumphant denial moments before. “Are you listening real close? Heaven’s not that, it’s this / it’s the depth of this moment / we don’t reach for bliss,” the radio host’s ultimate wisdom of “Phantom Regret by Jim” is that purgatory is not a journey. Heaven is not a destination, but a state of accepting obliteration. His advice to let go of regret and give in to dissolution of the ego isn’t a process, but the thing itself. A dissolved ego doesn’t dwell on desire because desire no longer gives it identity. For The Weeknd to reach the light, he’d have to shed everything that makes him The Weeknd. Aside from the drastic repercussions to Republic Records, that would contradict just one thing.      

“Consider the flowers, they don’t try to look right / They just open their petals and turn to the light,” Carrey yarns. Like the flower, The Weeknd himself is an allegory — a face that converts melancholy into energy. The character, from larger to life to larger than death, doesn’t die any more than his ideas preserved on wax or the projections we cast onto it. Carrey’s flower is doing what flowers do. The Weeknd is doing what The Weeknd does. 

'Dawn FM' album cover
'Dawn FM' album cover