There’s a well-known phrase in the film world: “One for them, one for me,” which refers to the concept of an actor or director making a film that appeals to a mass audience and then turning around and doing a smaller film that is more of a true artistic pursuit. This idea doesn’t have to be exclusive to movies, though you as evidenced by the latest album from The Weeknd, titled My Dear Melancholy,.
The Weeknd, of course, built his name off an air of mystery he cultivated with sleazy, druggie records that had more sonic similarities with indie rock bands like Beach House (whom he sampled) than any traditional R&B. People loved it, particularly at the beginning of the decade when Tumblr popularized mood board culture and rap blogs had democratized the tastemaking process (though, in this case, the rap blog that broke the Weeknd was Drake’s). Fast forward to now, and The Weeknd is one of the biggest artists in pop, a status that was cemented by 2016’s double platinum Starboy, an album that was the same as every other Weeknd album lyrically but dressed up in a package more clean and mainstream than even his pop breakthrough Beauty Behind the Madness.
My Dear Melancholy,—a six-track EP—finds The Weeknd returning to the darkened drug den sounds of his earlier work. It is, in that sense, “one for him,” though its subject matter does offer up a lot to the general public. Being a proper pop star means that The Weeknd is also a real celebrity now, someone who is photographed from long distances by the paparazzi so his relationships can be used as fuel for gossip blogs and magazines. My Dear Melancholy, spends its run time dissecting broken romances, and its lyrics at times seem engineered to titillate the public’s prying eyes, as any number of articles breaking down the album’s allusions to Selena Gomez and Bella Hadid can tell you. There is a specificity to the album that makes it unique among The Weeknd’s catalog even as the production retreats into his comfort zone.
But it is also really just a breakup album, and a really mopey one at that. “I put you on top, I claimed you so proud and openly,” he gently whispers at the start of the opening track “Call Out My Name” as though he was doing this woman a favor by dating her, which inadvertently explains why things went down so badly. “Girl why can’t you wait till I fall out of love,” he sings later on in the song, setting the parameters for an album that often feels merely like a self-obsessed, performative temper tantrum set to moody beats.
Gone are the projections of disaffected cool and the jaded yet incredibly game attitudes toward doing drugs with models. Instead, what we’re left with is a whiny album where the drugs are for The Weeknd to get over the pain and loneliness —”I got two red pills to take the blues away” he coos on “Privilege.” The party (and the after party) is over, and what’s left are desperate late-night texts to his exes. My Dear Melancholy, suffers from the central sin of many breakup albums: it is incredibly self-involved and self-pitying, nothing but surface-level introspection that shows a lot of emotion but none of it in the service of anything but the singer’s ego. Instead of an actual reckoning of heartbreak and relationships, the album is just one long cry, and you just have to assume he took a deep breath after and felt a little better. You never get a real sense of what The Weeknd likes about the woman (or women) who is the focus of the album—he sings about her with as little detail or perspective as he did those nameless models at parties he made his career on. All we get is that she was special because he liked her, and that’s not much of a convincing statement. It also doesn’t help that this statement is mostly drowning in what feels like endlessly sludgy and murky production that blends together in a narcotic haze.
It’s a little hard to believe there’s actual clamoring from The Weeknd fans for a return to this style of gloom. That sound grew stale almost as quickly as it became popular and, to this day, there’s no shortage of brooding rap and R&B about drugs and women you can’t trust. Starboy, while full of its own issues, at least felt alive and energetic even as it spoke the same morose language, and so it’s no coincidence the best song on My Dear Melancholy, is the one produced by Skrillex and Frank Dukes. Called “Wasted Times,” it thumps and shakes like it has an actual heartbeat. It also suggests that The Weeknd won’t turn his back on his newfound pop sensibilities, which is good. He’ll need them to make a better album.