Album Review — The Weeknd’s ‘After Hours’

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.

Grade: 10/10

Album Review — Tennis’ ‘Swimmer’

I have to admit I wasn’t that familiar with the husband-wife duo of Tennis before hearing their new album Swimmer. I had heard of Tennis in passing and a few songs here and there. And man I wish I had listened to the music of Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley sooner. But I picked a great album to start with, as Swimmer is one of the most beautiful albums I’ve heard on love in the modern era. I like to think of this album as a more grown-up version of Country Perspective’s top album of 2020, Carly Rae Jepsen’s Dedicated. Swimmer though is very much in the dream pop lane, taking influences from twee pop, soft rock and yacht rock too.

Soft and rolling piano plays in opener “I’ll Haunt You.” It’s a song about confessional, professing love. The instrumentation gives it an appropriately hypnotic feel and is a good introduction of what you can expect through this album. I really enjoy the bouncy snare drum that interplays throughout “Need Your Love.” Tennis makes an excellent choice in speeding up the pace when Moore is protesting her lover, yet the melody immediately slows down once she admits she needs his love. This really gives a good sense into the divided mindset of someone who loves someone but is also living in doubt with them at the same time, as both the words and sounds play perfectly off each other.

“How to Forgive” is about disguising how you feel around the person you love and being consumed by the questions in your head about the relationship. “How could I disguise the way that I’m feeling?/I’ve got my reasons, I could give you a million/I’d move on if I could only remember/All that it takes is just an act of surrender” are the money lines that really drive home the mood of this song. That very last line in particular gives such an insightful glimpse into the fear of giving one’s self up to another in a relationship and letting go of that control. Moore’s delivery of these lines really drives the emotion of them across.

“Runner” focuses on the raw passion of the relationship, going down to the beads of sweat that are running down their necks. Once again I have to praise how the production shifts so appropriately with the changing moods within the song, going more methodical and relaxing when Moore is reflecting on the passion, and then the pace shifts to a more frenetic, escalating excitement when she starts to exclaim over the sweat that pours out of her. With this kind of synchronization between the words and production of the song, it makes it instantly connectable with such a vivid picture being painted in my head.

“Echoes” and “Swimmer” are two songs that need to be discussed together for two reasons. For one I couldn’t really discern what exactly they were about, but I’m glad it forced me to actually read what Moore said about writing these songs because the inspiration behind them are the kind of stories I like to hear about from songwriters. That leads me to the second point of why these two songs should be discussed together and that’s because they each center around death.

“Echoes” is about Moore suffering a seizure in a grocery store, leading her husband Riley to believe she was dead at first. Moore also described the ordeal as an out of body experience and how after she came to later that it strengthened their bond even more. “Swimmer” is about the couple spreading the ashes of Riley’s father in the ocean and Moore observing the dichotomy of the sadness of them spreading his ashes versus looking back at the shore and seeing people laughing and having a good time. The message ultimately both songs convey is how reflecting on mortality can cause one to have greater appreciation for your loved ones; out of sadness can come happiness, strength and a greater awareness. It is death that gives life such meaning and therefore love too. You can’t get any stronger songwriting than this.

“Tender as a Tomb” immediately invites you in with it’s warm and tropical sound. It’s a song that gets lost in the overwhelming joy one can experience when in love, engulfing themselves in the emotion, casting away all reason and doubt in the process. “Late Night” features some really clever songwriting around a biblical reference: “Like Mary Magdalene, I’m on my knees again/But if you see me as a saint/You’d be mistaken/Late night turning into morning blue/It took such a long time to make up my own mind about you.” It not only describes her surrendering herself to the sexual pleasure of this relationship, but the emotional aspect too. She’s both literally and figuratively giving herself up to her love. It’s gripping and fantastic songwriting by Moore and Riley.

The album closes with “Matrimony II,” an excellent choice to end with, as it kind of reflects on everything that this album covers, leading to the ultimate act of love: marriage. It goes over the vows and how she changed her name for him, how all these little acts and feelings slowly built up to this moment of true love. What impresses me how well this is expressed in the lyrics without “going Hallmark” or overly cliché. Matched with an equally happy sounding melody, this song makes you leave the album with a smile. I know I did.

With Swimmer, Tennis delivers an excellent album about love. It’s quickly became one of my favorite love albums. And this isn’t rash hyperbole on my end. I’m being serious when I say that this album truly delivers a heartfelt, genuine and truly touching take on true love. Love albums and love song are an absolute dime-a-dozen. They’re churned out every day. Most only focus on the surface level of love and the flip-side with heartbreak. What they don’t ever seem to focus on are the little things, the nitty gritty of relationships that aren’t easy to convey in an informative and interesting way. But that takes brilliant songwriting with equally high-quality production that aids it. Tennis delivers this.

Grade: 10/10