Abel Tesfaye, known to the world as superstar The Weeknd, has two thrones. As a pop artist, he’s become a global phenomenon and had a colossal impact on the charts. His last few years reads almost as a Greatest Hits - Often, Earned It, The Hills, Can’t Feel My Face, Low Life, Starboy, I Feel It Coming.
But The Weeknd’s other throne is the more interesting of the two. While Beauty Behind the Madness and Starboy saw Weeknd rise to face the crowds, arguably his greatest material lies in his first 3 mixtapes: House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence. Known collectively (and subsequently re-released) as Trilogy, these tapes popularized the dark, sultry RnB that has made careers for artists such as PARTYNEXTDOOR, Bryson Tiller and 6LACK. They are, as many have noted, perhaps the most influential RnB albums of the 2010s. With that in mind, it’s easy to see how a long-time fan can be disappointed with The Weeknd’s trajectory. Going from the eerie, despondent and tear-wrenching production of Trilogy to upbeat Daft Punk, for many, has been a notable downgrade.
Which is why this EP is so special. My Dear Melancholy is a half-return to Weeknd’s original form, evoking the same heart-wrenching tone as Trilogy and Kiss Land whilst maintaining the gloss of his latest work. Indeed, it feels more like a synthesis, a fusion of the old and new that takes the best of both. Whilst not as dark as Trilogy, it evokes the same atmosphere, albeit with a glitzy pop touch on tracks such as Wasted Times and Hurt You.
Now, I’m not usually one to promote focusing analysis of an album around its context, but in this case, context is almost inseparable. Tesfaye is fresh off a breakup with fellow musician Selena Gomez, who swiftly returned to ex-boyfriend Justin Bieber after the couple split last October. As such, much of this EP is laced in a mix of longing, despondency and venom, a blend that perfectly encapsulates the ‘broken man’ that Abel’s lyrics paint him to be.
This emotional vulnerability and volatility is expressed primarily through the EP’s lyrics. Whilst Tesfaye has never been renowned for wordplay, MDM’s lyrics are skeletal, stripped to the absolutes of emotion. This manifests in a number of forms. At its simplest, this comes in the form of barebones lyrics: phrases such as “I helped you out of a broken place” and “It was like I was never there” dip into cliché but are delivered with such powerful intonation that they somehow sound good.
On the flipside, these impactful statements are interlaced with incredibly personal details, moments that give you a window into Tesfaye’s relationship. One such lyric is the talked-about “I almost cut a piece of myself for your life”, a supposed reference to Tesfaye’s offering of a kidney to aid in Gomez’s battle with Lupus. Moments like this give the EP it’s weight: it is this blending of the personal and general that makes this record so good. At once, it’s relatable and sympathetic, a source of personal feeling with moments of immense empathy.
This is only emphasised by the near-flawless production throughout. The instrumentals, worked on by a variety of talents from rap-pop mainstay Frank Dukes to innovative French producer Gesaffelstein, are consistently tone-appropriate and multi-layered. While songs like Reminder and Starboy stay consistent throughout, each song on MDM is constantly shifting, splitting into varied sections every minute or so. The instrumentals are hardly uniform, too: while they all evoke a tonal consistency, they vary from electronic ballads (Call Out My Name) to Burial-inspired soulful RnB (Wasted Times), from Starboy-like pop (Hurt You) to ODESZA-esque summer ambiance (Privilege).
That’s to say nothing of the vocal modulation. The entire EP is perfectly moulded through a series of vocal shifts and filters, which give the vocals a much-needed emphasis as their instrumentals shift around them. The first example is found on the opening track, Call Out My Name. As the song progresses from grief to fury, Abel’s singing grows more prominent, culminating in an abrasive “Call out my name”, followed by a haunting blend of nearly-indiscernible lyrics as the track comes to its melancholic closure. Likewise, on Wasted Times Tesfaye lets the instrumental speak for itself, dedicating the song’s later portions to a EDM-inspired vocal sampling rather than the continuation of lyrics. Vocal modulation has an incredibly important role in the enhancement of MDM’s emotional rawness, and it is clear that the producers placed them with masterful attention.
While the skeletal lyrics and vocal modulation may not be for everyone, it’s safe to say that this is everything I wanted from a Weeknd release. My Dear Melancholy sounds like a refined version of many of Tesfaye’s albums, toeing the line between old and new Weeknd to perfection. Its lyrics give it an emotional punch that Starboy severely lacked, whilst its production and vocal modulation dip this in a distant, despondent and thoroughly compelling dye - this is a complete return to form.