There’s nothing better than on the first listen of an album knowing that you’re listening to something that’s special. When I listened to this new album from The Weeknd, that’s the feeling I got. On his last album Starboy, there were several great moments. But the overall album felt unfocused and bloated. It just didn’t have a direction. All of this though is not only rectified on After Hours, it’s a front-to-back required listen to truly appreciate each song. It’s what an album experience should be.
Eery keyboards play in opening track “Alone Again,” where Abel Tesfaye (it feels more appropriate to refer to him by his actual name when discussing the story) finds himself in an identity crisis, wondering if he’s really the type to be in a relationship. But at the same time he questions if he can be alone again too. It sets up a battle that plays out through the album: his love versus his demons, fighting for and against both at various points. On “Too Late” the relationship has fallen apart and now he’s alone, confronting the guilt and realizing how he did her wrong. I love the pulsating, yet reflective tone of the production, as it heightens the lyrics. “Hardest To Love” is Abel admitting how difficult of a person he is to love and seeing how she’s trying to let him go for good. The dream pop influences mixed with The Weeknd’s usual sound really works well, a credit to producer Max Martin. It gives the song an appropriate overwhelming feeling, as this feeling of disappointment consumes Abel.
“Scared To Live” sees Abel apologizing for being selfish enough to not let her go sooner, stringing her along much longer than he should have. He also owns up to ruining her perception of love and encouraging her to get back out there and find love. It’s a great dose of maturity on an album centered around immature and reckless love. One more cool factoid for this song: it uses an interpolation of Elton John’s “Your Song.” On “Snowchild” Abel reflects on all the sacrifices and work it took him to make it big, but now he plots leaving the bright lights of Los Angeles. He’s simply over it all in the light of the breakup, looking to remove himself from the situation entirely. Despite the sad nature of the song, The Weeknd does manage to get in a clever and funny line: “She liked my futuristic sounds in the new spaceship/Futuristic sex, give her Phillip K. Dick.”
“Escape from LA” sees him leaving finally, but not before one more battle of giving into the desires and sins he knows are destroying him, hooking up with his ex while also realizing she’s a “cold-hearted bitch” and the fake, plastic nature of the bright lights around him. The frustration at the situation and himself bubbles out, while yet indulging in what he knows is wrong. This leads to his jaded bitterness now driving him on “Heartless.” He’s fully relapsed into his single lifestyle, sleeping with every woman he can trying to ignore the pain coming from his heart. The glitzy, yet dark undertones of the production from Metro Boomin perfectly paints the mindset and feeling of Abel in this moment. The song serves as the precursor to the car going off the cliff so to speak.
Abel is going down hill fast and headed for rock bottom on “Faith,” the major turning point on this album and in this story. He throws away his year-long sobriety, indulging in drinking and various drugs in his favorite place of sin, Las Vegas. He admits he’s losing his religion and faith, as the heartbreak of his situation completely overtakes him. By the end of the song he finds himself in the back of a cop car, finally hitting rock bottom. Both the lyrics and production do such a great job of giving that feeling of slowly descending into darkness and then the thud of hitting the bottom at the end when the sirens sound. It’s the most important moment on this album, the crossroads of falling and climbing back to the top.
The climb back up begins on “Blinding Lights.” Abel begins to fight to regain his love, admitting that maybe he can learn to truly love someone. It’s an appropriate title too, as it’s play on the last song being about being blinded by the lights of a cop car and Las Vegas. But now he’s being blinded by the light of the realization of how much he wants to win his love back. Martin comes through once again with more fun production, as the synth and drum machine-driven sound is instantly catchy and makes you want to dance. “In Your Eyes” is Abel professing his love and claiming to see that same passion in her eyes, even though he know there’s hurt that still lurks within her too. This song features even more excellent production from Martin, in fact it’s the best on the album. It’s also the best modern take on 80s pop rock I’ve heard, nailing every little detail needed with the synths, including the fantastic surprise saxophone that comes in at the end.
“Save Your Tears” sees Abel coming across his love at a club, with each exchanging looks and neither being able to walk up and talk to the other. Internally he’s pleading for her to take him back, while also acknowledging he’s late and that she deserves better than him. I love all the little details in the lyrics showing both the external and internal conflicting emotions on display from both Abel and his ex. Throw in the moody, dream pop-influenced production of Martin that gives the song the right amount of tension and anticipation and it’s another great coordination of The Weeknd and Martin. “Repeat After Me” is an interlude of Abel saying his ex doesn’t really love her new man if she’s still thinking of Abel and that it’s just casual sex that means nothing to him. One wonders if he’s trying to convince her or himself more with this plead. Also gotta love how The Weeknd manages to sneak in yet another top notch producer in Kevin Parker to produce this, who of course even in an interlude manages to deliver great production.
The album’s title track is about Abel falling into desperation over his pleadings to win back his ex, unable to sleep. In fact the song is a mash-up of essentially all the feelings he’s experienced up to this point, showing how his emotions are spiraling out of control. He finds himself stuck reliving everything from his past as he struggles to cope with his feelings in the present. The production is noticeably darker and downbeat, as it goes into the final track “Until I Bleed Out.” Abel finally realizes that he’s lost her for good and will never win her heart back again. Now he’s trying to go through the process of letting her go, proclaiming with these visceral lines: “I wanna cut you outta my dreams/Till I’m bleeding out, til I’m bleeding out/I wanna cut you outta my mind.” The production is appropriately dreary and dark, as Abel reaches the same point he thought he might have wanted at the beginning of the album: alone.
After Hours is a phenomenal achievement by The Weeknd. This album is a rich, cinematic experience of love, losing it, fighting to regain it and ultimately reaching the realistic conclusion of realizing that it’s lost. The production team absolutely nails every emotion on this album and takes the lyricism to a whole new level. The juxtaposition of the breezy, mixed cocktail of genres (R&B, pop, hip-hop, dream pop, 80s) feels perfect on this album of frenetic, dark emotions that permeate throughout it. This is without a doubt an album of the year contender.