Neither as relentlessly hooky as March’s House of Balloons nor as noisy and hatefuck-filled as August’s Thursday, the third 2011 mixtape from Internet-driven phenom Abel Tesfaye nonetheless continues his mastery of the druggy/lovey/loathing Weeknd thing. So isn’t it about time we just declare this guy a straight R&B act? He’s on Drake’s Take Care; devotees of Trey Songz are listening to him, too. The hipster accusations just don’t hold. And this is his most straightforward take on radio R&B yet.
Echoes of Silence begins with a goofy, gutsy remake of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana,” mysteriously titled “D.D” so as to not spoil that first-listen, “Oh-no-he-didn’t-just-cover-MJ” moment. Replacing the original’s heavy-metal signifying with mournful Requiem for a Dream strings is both inspired and predictable. And by singing the song straight, Tesfaye doesn’t hedge his bets. Instead, he and producer Illangelo boldly stick themselves into a tradition of icky, cruel R&B, taking on Michael Jackson’s most misogynistic song — underlying message: I hate the sort of woman who’d want to sleep with me — and, in the process, basically summing up the entire Weeknd project.
A more reasonable romantic sentiment is expressed on “The Fall,” which features a slowed-up, handclaps-adorned Bay Area slap beat from of-the-moment pop-on-painkillers producer Clams Casino. Along with “Next,” the track seems to equate torrid affairs with fleeting Internet buzz: “I ain’t scared of the fall,” Tesfaye cries out to either the girl in his bed or possibly a Tumblr follower. “I’ve felt the ground before.” Indeed, this final installment in the Weeknd’s 2011 trilogy makes it seem as though Tesfaye is rushing through an entire arty R&B career in less than a year’s time, outrunning the indomitable, unforgiving hype machine.
Part of that fast-moving, yet thoughtful approach seems to be testing what he can get away with while still keeping us talking. “Dirty Diana” frames the album with knowing meta-commentary; teaming up with Clams is just good synergy. (Meanwhile, Three 6Mafia’s Juicy J inexplicably shows up toward the end of “Same Old Song” to simply ramble — but not rap — about weed and Christmas.) The second half of “XO/The Host” finds Tesfaye wailing over what might as well be a John Carpenter soundtrack; it sounds like a Lovecraftian beast is about to enter the V.I.P. “Initiation” takes the current obsession with vocal manipulation, be it Miguel’s “Sure Thing” or Skrillex’s “First of the Year (Equinox),” to new levels of absurdity, twisting the vocals from geeked-up to slurred and slow, even gender-bending them into something androgynously seductive.
These equally compelling and silly moments reveal that all the Weeknd’s music, despite its unfettered decadence and Tesfaye’s ever-improving coo, is, at its core, transcendent camp. Even as it stood with commercial radio’s most ubiquitous hits hooks-wise, House of Balloons drastically magnified modern R&B’s insistence on plying women with drinks and drugs before taking them home; Thursday, grinding and aggressive and damn near industrial at times, was an affront to the fist-pumping, post-Guetta platonic ideal of a party where nobody throws up or overdoses, and liquor-fueled sex remains strictly consensual. (Heartbreak is the least of one’s worries on a song like “Life of the Party.”) As for Echoes of Silence, the pain behind a seemingly numb-to-it-all player is finally unveiled, reaching Douglas Sirk-ian heights of pathos on the album-ending title track.
There, over a sober arrangement of piano and ambient noise, Tesfaye brushes off yet another woman who doesn’t get the implicit agreement that partying with him means you don’t catch feelings. But he genuinely sounds freaked out when confronted with someone who is just as thrill-seeking and gut-level lonely as he is, repeating his lover’s desperate cries (“I don’t want to spend the night alone”) because they’re his, too. As with the Weeknd’s previous two releases, Echoes is a profound listen that, despite its veneer of cynicism, oozes pain and crisis. There’s blood, sweat, and tears dripping out of these songs. Along with any number of other liquids.