By Eóin Donnelly
A veil of secrecy once separated The Weeknd from his rabid core fanbase; at once addicted to his alluring cocktail of sex, drugs and woozy, downcast RnB he debuted on bedroom mixtape House of Balloons, and with hit after hit piling on top of one another with his ascent into mainstream pop culture, it was only a matter of time before the mystique faded away. We can’t say he didn’t warn us. On ‘Rolling Stone’, one of the standouts on The Weekend’s Trilogy of breakout mixtapes, he looks into his mystic ball and alerts his fans to the seismic change that is to come in his music, begging they don’t abandon him: “Baby I got you/Until you’re used to my face/And my mystery fades/I got you/So baby love me/Before they all love me/Until you won’t love me/Because they’ll all love me.” Fast-forward seven years and the clamour for the ‘old’ Weeknd hasn’t abated, to the point that you can scarcely mention his name on a musical discussion forum without a legion of fanatical Trilogy fans lamenting his ‘selling out’, writing off any new material at the point of release.
More than perhaps any other current artist, The Weeknd epitomises a perverse side-effect of fandom, where the heartbroken, emotionally dishevelled private lives of our idols are treated as welcome collateral damage provided it results in the kind of music we like. “Shout out to Selena Gomez for breaking The Weeknd’s heart, I needed this album”, one fan tweeted. From finally sounding ready for love on Starboy’s luminous closer ‘I Feel It Coming’ to going through not one but two high-profile breakups, it’s no wonder that a return to the ‘old’ Weeknd we came to love has been so widely speculated upon in recent months.
All it took was one Travis Scott tweet to send the XO Crew into social media delirium. Was Trilogy Weeknd coming back? With new six-track EP My Dear Melancholy,– which seems to be the first part of a Trilogy sequel- we certainly got our wish. Solipsistic lyricism? Check. Emotionally anguished vocals? Check. Despondent, claustrophobic beats? Check. There’s no doubt about it- My Dear Melancholy, goes some way to reestablishing the mystical aura surrounding everyone’s favourite sad fuckboy. However, with much of the bacchanalian subject matter and dark musical backdrops explored on previous projects, not least of which on Trilogy, it is doubtful that My Dear Melancholy, as a whole is original or memorable enough to inspire the same kind of feverish nostalgia as its antecedents. Nevertheless, there are some truly thrilling moments. The opening track, ‘Call Out My Name’ is the best of the lot and is our Song of the Month for March 2018.
In the various music publications and discussion forums I tend to frequent I have noticed some mixed responses to ‘Call Out My Name’, with the main criticism being that it is too similar to his past output- particularly ‘Earned It’- to really stand out in his discography. While I recognise the logic of this argument, it is my contention that every artist who has carved out a career of prolonged success has a formula that is distinctively theirs, and my central riposte to the ‘Call Out My Name’ haters is that when it’s executed this brilliantly, who really cares if it reminds you of another song? There is much to be said for artistic reinvention, but on an EP where The Weeknd was clearly attempting to reclaim dominion over the sound he invented it was inevitable there’d be some overlap.
I sense I’m not in the minority here. At the time of writing, in little over a week ‘Call Out My Name’ has amassed almost 60 million streams on Spotify alone, making it the world’s most popular song by a guy not named Drake (there’s really no stopping him right now). Excuse my bias, but as my favourite Weeknd release to date I’m hardly going to up in arms about him mining 2015’s Beauty Behind The Madness for inspiration. ‘Call Out My Name’, however, is far from a BTTM throwaway, and could definitely go toe-to-toe with some of that album’s greatest hits. There’s no hidden beauty here, only madness to a melody of unmitigated pain. The slow pacing, though certainly similar to ‘Earned It’, is more emotionally evocative here, where The Weeknd’s desolation about the end of his relationship with Selena Gomez builds to a suitably poignant crescendo.
In what is a very strange recent phenomenon, today’s hip-hop and RnB zeitgeist continues to churn more and more viral singles from a seemingly bottomless pit of depression. Nihilism is everyone’s new favourite buzzword, a common misnomer that misrepresents ‘Call Out My Name’ for what it really is: an immensely powerful exercise in catharsis that restores The Weeknd to regal status in the realm of sparse, lovelorn RnB ballads. “I almost cut a piece of myself for your life”, he sings tormentedly, an apparent reference to his kidney offering to a transplant-needing Gomez. It is one of a string of vulnerable lines from a man who’s spent the majority of his meteoric rise to stardom courting supermodels without sparing us the explicit details (“Dick made out of magic, my tongue for superpowers/I woke up in the morning, models passed out in the shower”, anyone?), and it is at 2:18 of ‘Call Out My Name’ that a good song becomes a great one, a wall of distorted misery adding the final dramatic flourish to an outstanding vocal performance from Abel. It reminded me of another lothario in Leonardo DiCaprio (what a friendship they must have) and his final moments of The Revenant, shivering and glaring into the camera as if to silently address the elephant in the room: “Please give me the Oscar.” He deserved it, and so too does Weeknd deserve my Song of the Month award. They’re basically on the same level of prestige, right?