The Weeknd, "Dawn FM" (Republic)

It says a lot about the Weeknd that his sunniest album contains not one but two songs about erotic asphyxiation.

In the past, these references to risky sexual gratification would've played as part of the Canadian pop star's long-running image as bad boy. But on "Dawn FM" the rough sex carries a softer edge; here, in exquisitely rendered tunes lush with echoes of Michael Jackson and Depeche Mode, he's illuminating a path to fulfillment, perhaps even to happiness, and crucially without renouncing his old predilections.

"Dawn FM" offers a fantasy of escape. The Weeknd channels optimism into songs about relationships, and not always healthy ones; "Sacrifice" is sung by a guy who lies to a woman about how he'll never leave, while the title of "I Heard You're Married" speaks for itself.

But there's a sensitivity in the music to replace the cynicism that defined the Weeknd's earlier material — a belief in the possibility of satisfaction rather than in the certainty of abuse. After "Sacrifice" comes "A Tale by Quincy," in which Quincy Jones monologues over a creamy R&B arrangement about how growing up parentless impacted his romances later in life; after that comes "Out of Time," a gorgeous ballad that has the Weeknd facing the cold truth of a partner's rejection.

Other songs showcase a similar emotional intelligence: "Is There Someone Else?" draws a moral line at sneaking behind someone's back. "Here We Go … Again" might be the album's most idealistic cut and its most pragmatic, with a chorus about willingly giving into love.

Produced mainly by Max Martin and Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never), the songs boogie and shimmer just so; the melodies ache with longing and regret. And the Weeknd sings more beautifully than ever, especially on the mournful-ecstatic "Less Than Zero" and "Here We Go … Again," with a sumptuous choral backdrop by Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys.

By all appearances, 2022 looks to be another hellish experience. So maybe it makes sense that the year's first great album should be a feel-good Weeknd joint.

MIKAEL WOOD, Los Angeles Times


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