Released August 18th 2011. Review originally published 21st August 2011.
I decree, not that life is not simply taking and not giving, but that music in 2011 – big ass target area, notionally encompassing everything from Hawaiian ad-jingles to Tibetan Yang chanting – is in about as ruder health as it could possibly be. Internet creates cultural vacuum? Not so far. Simon Cowell reducing performance to bastardised monologues of auto tuned mannequins? Maybe but although that shit is popular, it isn’t some kind of functioning barometer of quality and diversity. Ironically, the only change that the collapse of the bloated, rancid hound dog of an industry has produced so far has been the creative bar being raised. The chancers, the hangers on and the plagiarists who thought they could make a buck by leeching the good ideas of the innovative few have disappeared, mostly because the rise of the freetards has precipitated an unlikely and equivalent forward leap in taste. These days I’m afraid if you’re shit, you’re most likely shit and poor.
The Weeknd are creativity squared, cubed. To infinity. From Canada, Thursday is their second release of the year, coming after House of Balloons and to be followed by Echoes of Silence. That all three are given away is hardly news, but it doesn’t begin to tell the back story adequately. To date only Abel Tesfaye has been confirmed as a member; this time round he’s joined by Doc McKinney and the otherwise anonymous Illangelo. Oh, and after a few love-tweets, Drake makes it here onto The Zone, consummating a relationship which has had hipsters frothing into their hi-tops for months.
Having a few camera shy protagonists does not a ground breaking act make, but the information blackout is complemented by the kind of genre shredding approach to r&b as favoured by Odd Future when re-engineering rap for the Tumblr generation. And as with Tyler and co. its best just to sit back and admire what comes – there’s no point in trying to get into the alienspace in their heads. Its alien.
Tesfaye has previously cameo’d as a kind of Stringer Bell character, a despicable thug-misognyst with an unspecified higher intellectual calling that demands redemption. To place Thursday in a box is convenient, but misdirection; better instead to consider it an exercise in sexual paranoia in a sonic canvas of mushrooming, crepuscular moods. The sex is dirty too, even if the air is clean. Right from the rhyme-go on opener Lonely Star the references to fucking are in everyone’s face. Making love is for the emotionally retarded; here you need to be able to go long and brutal, hate someone enough to get hard for them. In the morning there’s just empty pill cases and condoms filled with blood. Its war out there.
Pleasingly, almost nothing is what is seems here. Almost every vocal is layered underneath some sort of distortion. Instrumentation is deep, on the edge of a precipice. Closer Heaven or Las Vegas is steeped in the trappings of dub reggae – surely a global revival for Jamaica’s ultimate form of protest is on its way – but also features grainy, understated guitar chords. Life of The Party by contrast sounds like The Knife if they were Angelinos, rippling with menace and evil little metal flourishes.
Tough – impossible – to imagine p’raps that anything of beauty could come out of such a set of Domesday scenarios for relationships. Yet the Birds (Part 1 – Part 2 is a different beast altogether) will find those who take joy in naked emotional concrete chirping. Tesfaye is still warning some girl that she shouldn’t fall in love with a monster like him – but the highs are almost epic, a military tattoo drum break over a voice that swoops and dives with virtuoso aplomb. Rolling Stone by contrast favours a naked acoustic guitar and rootsy approach, like he needs to, but Tesfaye admits “I know I got my issues” whilst playing a nominally androgynous vocal role which eventually breaks down into white noise. Its almost terrifyingly good.
Where Echoes of Silence will go is anyone’s guess to make. Speculation, that most modern of marketing devices, is going to continue as to whether The Weeknd can continue down the give-away path before one of the few major labels manages to tempt them into something more substantial. Either way, Thursday’s existence means that the re-examination of what it means to make music has been a wonderful thing. We can’t see clearly now the rain has gone, and it feels like right now that lack of foresight is the best vision of all.