Abel Tesfaye, a k a the Weeknd, has been busy the past few months. He self-released three mix tapes of moodily skewed R&B that have earned him a nomination for Canada’s top musical honor, the Polaris Prize (he lost out to Arcade Fire last summer), and an endorsement from Drake.
Part 3 of his mix-tape trilogy, “Echoes of Silence” (available for free at his web site the-weeknd.com), isn’t quite as instantly catchy as his debut, “Balloons,” released way back in March 2011. But it’s an impressive consolidation of his strengths, tightening up his songwriting and sharpening his often disturbing wordplay.
Tesfaye doesn’t always play a likable character in his songs. Though he sings in a high, tremulous voice that threatens to break into a sob at points, he plays against type: the sensitive, heartfelt crooner singing about doing heart-less things. He doesn’t just break up with his girlfriends, he wants to break them, too. He owns up to his insecurity, his inability to rein in his ugly side. In this world, a line such as “Baby, when I’m finished with you, you won’t want to go,” sounds like a death sentence.
The disturbing twists are matched by music that shifts from feathery and layered to distorted and dirty. Beats flicker in and out, sometimes hitting with tribal force, other times barely there. Instead of the insistent dancefloor push of contemporary R&B, the Weeknd is a closer cousin to the creepier, slower tracks in Nine Inch Nails’ discography. Little wonder that Tesfaye’s cover of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” is nearly unrecognizable, burying the rock bravado and focusing instead on the unsettling lyrics of temptation, lust and betrayal.
It all comes to a bad end for the narrator: the destructive spiral of “The Fall” and the final check-out of the funereal title song. The latter is typical of Tesfaye’s art, hovering like a ghost over a beautiful corpse.