It’s been almost a year and a half since Toronto pop R&B star Abel Tesfaye, also known as the Weeknd, released his 2016 project “Starboy.” Tesfaye’s newest album, “My Dear Melancholy,” was teased on Twitter only a few days before its surprise Thursday night release. The project’s short 21-minute runtime, the allusions to darkness in the title and ominous cover art of Tesfaye’s face in shadow, as well as its release following Tesfaye’s separation from popstar Selena Gomez excited fans and seemed to hint at a moodier, tormented direction. Before discussing the content of the project, however, we should consider the context of “My Dear Melancholy” in relation to Tesfaye’s other work.
The Weeknd’s first work was a series of three mixtapes which have since been packaged together and referred to simply as “The Trilogy.” Dark, hedonistic, and erotic, much of Tesfaye’s work on “The Trilogy” built him a core following and helped to develop and distill the contemporary alternative R&B sound into a formula used by a host of imitators over the years. The Weeknd’s follow-up, “Kissland,” appeared to be more of the same, although core fans certainly had plenty to like in the album’s continuation and slight clean-up of the dark and atmospheric vibe found in “The Trilogy.” For many listeners, their first exposure to the Weeknd was his commercial juggernaut “Beauty Behind the Madness,” which saw Tesfaye experimenting a bit more with his sound and moving towards a more immediate, pop-friendly style. While some of Tesfaye’s core fans lamented the change in direction, “Beauty Behind the Madness” and “Starboy” showed that the Weeknd was capable of crafting a variety of hits in different styles (e.g. “I Feel it Coming,” “Starboy,” “I Can’t Feel My Face.”) Now, with “My Dear Melancholy,” listeners have been presented with the long-awaited revisiting of his “Trilogy” and “Kissland” era sound. While it is sure to be lauded by diehard fans, the Weeknd’s newest project is a bite-sized retreading of old material repackaged with expensive, atmospheric production. At its best, “My Dear Melancholy” is merely interesting. At its worst, it is an unengaging rehashing of the R&B tropes made popular by Tesfaye himself.
The album begins with the track “Call Out My Name,” which is potentially the worst song in the tracklist. Sounding like a less compelling version of the Weeknd’s “Worth It,” featured in “Fifty Shades of Gray”, “Call Out My Name” is standard Weeknd fare. Lyrically, Tesfaye seems to contemplate the end of his relationship with Selena Gomez. However, nothing about the song or the performance does much to make the listener care. “Try Me” is boring sonic wallpaper which fails to engage the listener past the spacey instrumental, the Weeknd’s boyish vocals, and a host of played-out, hedonistic lyrics. “Wasted Times” doesn’t deliver any lyrical revelations but features excellent production from Frank Dukes (“Pick Up the Phone,” “Havana”) and Skrillex, giving the track a sense of motion and urgency which the previous two plodding songs failed to generate. About two-thirds of the way through the song, the Weeknd’s voice is modulated and warped in a way which, when paired with the driving percussion, is exciting and certainly shows the growth of Tesfaye’s production budget since his “Trilogy” days. “I Was Never There,” produced by Gesaffelstein, starts strong with a series of cascading sirens and also features an interesting beat switch and change in inflection in Tesfaye’s singing halfway through. However, the rest of the song falls victim to the same tired aesthetic and vocal delivery which plagues the entire project. The beginning of “Hurt You” sounds like a store-brand version of “Pray For Me” from the “Black Panther” soundtrack,” and plods along until the decent closer “Privilege.” Ending the album on a better note, “Privilege” features an understated but compelling vocal performance and a hypnotic, ethereal instrumental.
Despite some interesting moments, “My Dear Melancholy” struggles to hold the listener’s attention for the duration of a track, much less the entire project. While it runs a mere 21 minutes, the Weeknd’s latest effort will most likely not make listeners want to jump back into its white-powdered, erotic, nocturnal, and yet ultimately boring experience. Despite this, those who are long time fans of Tesfaye’s work, especially “The Trilogy” and “Kissland,” will find plenty to like here. In many ways, “My Dear Melancholy” plays like a higher budget realization of some of the concepts on those albums. Also, those who are looking for a project they can listen to without thinking too much may genuinely enjoy it. All the songs cohere to each other quite well, making it easy to listen front to back without realizing that the album the listener just consumed was composed of six different songs. Unfortunately, “My Dear Melancholy” sees Tesfaye selling himself short, suggesting that the Toronto singer isn’t comfortable pushing himself outside his familiar aesthetic just yet. Or maybe he’s just out of ideas?