When I sat down to write this review, I spent a long while staring at a blank document. There is too much to say about The Weeknd, otherwise known as Abel Tesfaye, a 21 year-old Canadian-Ethiopian who has released 3 albums in one year. In one year, The Weeknd have moved from some shadowy YouTube clips and a hand-up from Drake (who The Weeknd worked with on Take Care) to being probably the most exciting R’n’B artist in a decade.
It has been almost too perfect – the carefully controlled image, the constructed mystery around the identity of those involved (it was previously thought to be some kind of solo project by Drake’s main producer, Noah ’40’ Shebib) and the expertly crafted music all prompted rumours that some major label was working the strings, causing many music fans to exercise caution in proclaiming The Weeknd’s genius.
This, however, is what we are dealing with – a major new talent – and Echoes of Silence more than confirms this. The Weeknd’s ambition is clear from the very start of EOS. The first track is a dark, drum-heavy cover of Michael Jackson’s ‘Dirty Diana’, Tesfaye giving the lyrics (about a particularly pushy groupie) a more ambigious spin – he does not seem nearly as upset about the attention as the King of Pop did.
This leads into ‘Montreal’, the first track where Tesfaye sings in French as well as English, highlighting his Canadian nationality. He still has the same preoccupations – drugs, sex, celebrity culture – as on House of Balloons and Thursday but they are no longer foregrounded, excepting the absolutely terrifying ‘Initiation’.
Instead, the bluntness of earlier HOB tracks such as ‘Coming Down’ or ‘Glass Table Girls’ is replaced with the sophistication of ‘Outside’ or ‘Next’. Overall, the production strikes a balance between the hedonistic indie-R’n’B of HOB and the angry, harder music found on Thursday, fellow Canadian and XO member Illangelo creating murky yet beautiful backings for Tesfaye to soar over.
The only bad moment is a pointless guest appearance by Juicy J right at the end of ‘Same Old Song’, comparable to Chris Rock’s jarring monologue at the end of Kanye West’s ‘Blame Game’.
Additional production on the album comes from Clams Casino, another very exciting act to come to the fore in 2011, who contributes ‘The Fall’, a near-hypnotic slower track that showcases a different side of both artist’s work. The whole album, much like the others in the trilogy, hangs together wonderfully, regularly moving from track to track imperceptibly. The album’s standout – the aforementioned nightmarish ‘Initiation’ – is hard to pick out upon first listen due to its seamless integration with the song before.
‘Initiation’ is the logical conclusion of the trend in R’n’B and rap to speed-up and slow-down the human voice, Tesfaye’s vocal increasing and decreasing in pitch throughout to disorientating effect. Backed by big beats, a few snippets of guitar, some wails and bass stabs, it is unbelievably claustrophobic, perfectly matching the lyrics about being “zoned in for a week” – in too deep in hedonism.
But this is the ultimate achievement of The Weeknd with his trilogy of albums – they all hang together between themselves as well as within themselves. ‘Initiation’ is the fifth track of nine (each album have nine tracks), matching it up with HOB’s ‘Wicked Games’ and Thursday’s ‘The Birds (Part 1)’, two other tracks about getting in too deep in a hedonistic lifestyle. Each is different – ‘Wicked Games’ is a self-effacing slow-burner, ‘The Birds (Part 1)’ is a warning from Tesfaye to potential lovers about his character and ‘Initiation’ is a haunting invitation to join him in hedonist’s hell – but the connections are undeniable.
Three albums in one year would be big for an established artist, but three albums from a new act is nothing short of incredible. That they are all great is miraculous. Echoes of Silence is available for free from The Weeknd’s official website, along with House of Balloons and Thursday. What are you waiting for?By Jack Luckett