The Weeknd’s commitment to his bit can feel impersonal at times, especially when the amount of effects layered on his voice make him sound like he’s singing from just outside the studio walls, or from the deep beyond. It sounds like a voice that’s been inscribed into history, and is being resuscitated in order to rouse the masses.
Generally, he does so by drawing inspiration from the ecstatic pop of the 1980s, particularly Michael Jackson, a clear vocal influence. But the most striking and unanticipated turns on “After Hours” come when he pivots without sacrificing his gleam: “Too Late” has a peppy 2-step garage beat, and a flicker of industrial clangor near the end; “Hardest to Love” is rollicking big-room drum ’n’ bass à la Roni Size.
But the Weeknd also dabbles in abstraction, working with the electro-ambient miserablist Oneohtrix Point Never and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker on “Repeat After Me (Interlude).” This album is both blatant and curious all at once. (See also the empathetic dub-house remix of the title track by the Blaze, one of several remixes released as bonus tracks.)
The rest of the album, though, doesn’t shy away from the Weeknd’s shimmery mid-80s luxuriance. The saxophone solo near the end of the satisfyingly electric “In Your Eyes” could be high-end Muzak (in the best way), and “Save Your Tears” has both tonal echoes of Depeche Mode’s melancholy and a nod to “Everything She Wants” by Wham!
And then there’s “Blinding Lights,” currently the No. 1 song in the country, which could have been lifted from a found Jazzercise tape from 1986, though the chilly synths have a slightly sinister tinge. It says a lot about the durability of the Weeknd’s early noir, the full commitment to the louche aesthetic he embodied — see his cameo in “Uncut Gems,” which depends on it — that even the raging centrist popularity of “Blinding Lights” can’t disinter it.
The song’s music video is appropriately traumatic, but on TikTok in recent days, the #blindinglightschallenge has been ubiquitous, among the most wholesome of all viral dances. Many of the most popular videos feature two sons dancing with their father: they are relentlessly doofy.
But the videos are short, and the music used is just the song’s intro — you never hear the Weeknd sing. It’s another way for him to slip onto the tip of everybody’s tongue while stowing away his feelings in the shadows.