There’s not a moment to breathe on the new album by the Weeknd, “Dawn FM” — no spaces for resolution and calm, no indications of a world outside of its borders. An uninterrupted set of iridescent megapop anthems blended like a D.J. mix, it is, as with so many things that he has made in the last decade, an all-or-nothing proposition.
Since the Weeknd, born Abel Tesfaye, first arrived in 2011 with a trio of dank, sleazy mixtapes that radically reconstructed R&B, he has steadfastly, maybe even stubbornly, committed to thinking of his albums as discrete eras with evolving ideologies. And as he’s become one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, this has required both tremendous skill and a not insignificant amount of faith — in an era of microtargeting and niches that explode into ubiquity, he is choosing a far less assured top-down path.
He has succeeded by remaining, even at peak saturation, enigmatic. Tesfaye, 31, is interested in world-building, and he remains obscure — at this point, evolving past strategic anonymity to into full-scale character work — hiding behind hits.
“Dawn FM,” his fifth major-label album, is sleek and vigorous and also, again, a light reimagining of what big-tent music might sound like now, in an era when most global stars have abandoned the concept. “Dawn FM” extends and reimagines Tesfaye’s fixation on perfect pop that he’s been pursuing since he first teamed with the hitmaker Max Martin in the mid-2010s — seven years later, he’s still chasing a deeply polished orb at the end of an infinite galaxy.
What’s striking is the path he’s chosen to get there — yes, Martin is here, as are Oscar Holter and Swedish House Mafia. But Tesfaye’s true consigliere is Daniel Lopatin (a.k.a Oneohtrix Point Never), who began his career as a channeler of interstellar rumble but evolved into a soundtracker for space disco. Together, they make work that is mesmeric, both for its quality and its seamlessness. Tesfaye pulls Lopatin closer to blunt rhythm while allowing himself to get absorbed in the producer’s endless shimmers.
On “Dawn FM,” they land squarely in the window between 1982 and 1984, when New York’s emergent hip-hop production was coalescing into the electro that was streaking its way into pop. This is breakdancing music, touching on everything from Afrika Bambaataa’s seminal “Planet Rock” to Man Parrish and Mantronix to the first Force M.D.s album to the tuneful Los Angeles proto-rap of Egyptian Lover and World Class Wreckin’ Cru to Maurice Starr and Arthur Baker’s early work with New Edition.
What Tesfaye and Lopatin build on that foundation is ambitious. “Don’t Break My Heart” is soaringly sad, framing romantic desperation as an unescapable sonic maze. “Gasoline” dips into Depeche Mode-style hauteur for a classic Weeknd story about alluring degeneracy: “It’s 5 a.m. I’m high again/And you can see that I’m in pain/I’ve fallen into emptiness.”
“How Do I Make You Love Me?” is a super-sweet version of the Michael Jackson-esque pop Tesfaye has been reaching for, as is the majestic “Take My Breath.” These songs, which appear back to back early on the album, are the best arguments for Tesfaye’s vision, and crucially, both are songs where Martin is there as an amplifying force.
On “Dawn FM,” Tesfaye occasionally edges up against simu-funk, like on “Sacrifice,” which samples Alicia Myers’s dance-liberation thumper “I Want to Thank You.” And “Here We Go … Again,” which has the faintest mist of “How Deep Is Your Love” by the Bee Gees, is the album’s weakest and least characteristic moment, a lyrical jolt into the deeply specific present for a performer who is trying to make music that exists outside of time.
There’s a reason no one is currently trying to emulate what Tesfaye is achieving — it requires the meticulousness of an engineer, the ego of a superstar and the scars of the deeply wounded. Done wrong, it can come off as icy and algorithmic.
The album is threaded with interstitials from a fictional radio station, mainly voiced by Jim Carrey — amusing but not particularly meaningful. What does hit harder is “A Tale by Quincy,” in which the influential producer and mogul Quincy Jones relates a story about learning to grow up rough. Jones is an obvious antecedent for Tesfaye, who aspires to be an orchestrator as much as a singer and songwriter. (There are echoes of Jones’s 1981 album “The Dude” here as well.)
If anything has changed for Tesfaye, it’s his relationship to dysfunction. Though there are moments — like “Sacrifice” (“The ice inside my veins will never bleed”) and “Gasoline” — that recall the louche desperation of his early albums, he’s more often the victim.
“I Heard You’re Married” — which features a crisp, dexterous guest verse from Lil Wayne (“If I ain’t your husband I can’t be your hybrid”) — is about what happens when your old weapons are turned against you: “Your number in my phone I’m gon’ delete it/Girl, I’m way too grown for that deceiving.” “Is There Someone Else?” is a remarkably chill song about being a reformed cad. And he boasts about a movie-star girlfriend on “Here We Go … Again.”
Perhaps the shift is an acknowledgment of the regrets that come with age and experience. Perhaps it’s because the bad guy can only be the hero for so long. Or maybe it’s just a phase. The last full song on the album is “Less Than Zero,” a nod to Bret Easton Ellis debauchery but also a slightly stripped-down song about inner sadness. It’s the only moment on this mirror ball of an album that feels truly vulnerable, and dares to peek inside: “I try to hide it, but I know you know me.”