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The Weeknd’s ‘Dawn FM Experience’ is Musical World-Building at Its Best

There may not be a pop star alive who commits as fully to a new album era as the Weeknd. Ever since his pre-fame mixtapes, Abel Tesfaye has crafted each release and the visuals that go with it to feel like a cohesive, self-contained world. As budgets rise and the price goes up, the scope of the worlds he can build has expanded far beyond cover art and color palettes. The Dawn FM Experience, out now on Amazon Prime, is the highest level of universe-creation we’ve seen from the Weeknd to date.

The special kicks off with Abel, having already transformed into the elderly character he’s taken on for this year’s Dawn FM, stumbling into a rave-slash-purgatory waiting room with avant-electronic producer Oneohtrix Point Never presiding. As lost as the inhibitions in the room, the Weeknd starts belting out songs from Dawn FM as the character teeters between confusion about where he’s landed and resignation to the predicament he’s in. He is eventually joined and surrounded by black-veiled figures who give way to a woman in red circling him for the duration of “Is There Someone Else?” Is she a spurned lover? Or is it more abstract than that? Is she the regret Abel’s character must confront before he can finally rest? Who’s to say. You can spend half a week combing through Reddit reading the intricate theories surrounding this era’s narrative. By design, the Weeknd does nothing to spell it out for you.

Dawn FM is a concept album that underscores helplessness as only a mindset. It’s a character’s journey through the phases of purgatory, and the eventual acceptance of one’s state of being. In the Amazon special, the Weeknd reaches for a blinding white light that almost resembles stairs before it transforms to the lights over a nightclub — a clear indication that this character needs to sort his shit out at the discothèque before he can move on. As the special concludes and the Weeknd departs Club Limbo, Jim Carrey narrates: “Heaven’s for those who let go.” Motionless dancers litter the nightclub’s floor, having given themselves up to the light as they did to the music moments before.

The special’s true value comes in the form of the Weeknd’s live vocals. Fans have been waiting to hear what Dawn FM will sound like IRL. The way Abel plays around with his delivery, and some small changes in production by Oneohtrix Point Never, could make this a repeat watch and even an alternative to listening to the album on streaming platforms. 

Like many projects released after March 2020, Dawn FM is a foil to the claustrophobia many are feeling. It lends itself to the live experience, and it wants to be felt in a crowded room away from everyday life. It’s clear how much Abel is ready to hit the road. Having been deprived of the After Hours tour that was set to begin in June 2020, the Weeknd will instead combine his efforts on his last two projects into the aptly named “After Hours til Dawn” stadium run.

The special gives us a sneak peek into what that might look like. Never shying away from the grandiose, The Weeknd has historically spared no expense when it comes to live performances. For the tour supporting 2017’s Starboy, a spaceship descended from the ceiling before the Weeknd rose from its depths; for his 2018 Coachella set, the singer commissioned a 30-feet-tall Afrofuturist sculpture of his own face. This summer, expect America’s largest venues to transform into their own nightclubs and/or afterlife waiting rooms, heavy on cool blue tones and strobe lights, to encapsulate the world Abel has built.

If you were looking to this special for concrete answers surrounding the Weeknd’s senior-citizen transformation or you were hoping that the plot of Dawn FM would get fleshed out with more details, you’re out of luck for the most part. Like much of what commands our attention these days, The Dawn FM Experience is more interested in curating a mood and doubling down on the tone set by this era’s existing visuals.

To some fans, that’s enough. Dawn FM is a euphoric release of storytelling and synths. It’s an accessible listen that doesn’t command too much of the listener. Dawn FM keeps things murky and open ended: As Carrey reminds us that “The Weeknd’s so good and plays all week long,” he also insinuates that the story’s protagonist hasn’t completely let go just yet. Maybe there’s more to the story that Abel has yet to deliver, or maybe, much like the Weeknd’s character, we’re meant to figure it out ourselves.

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