People, especially people writing in certain types of magazines, occasionally talk about soundscapes, about how the way in which an album or song is laid out can feel like a sort of immersive environment. Well, says Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, that game is for wimps. In the space of one released-for-free mixtape, The Weeknd established a whole world.
A world where – as pretty much everyone who’s written about, or listened to, the music will tell you – it is constantly the early hours of the morning, where it’s cold and smoky outside, where the party is always just ending. A world with the colours turned down slightly, viewed through a lens smeared with vaseline … or are your eyes just bleary?
With its sort of Noir R’n’B (as in the black-&-white motifs, sure, but also the femme fatales and troubled masculinity of the lyrics, the quivering motel neons in the music) House of Balloons manages to transport all this to the space between your eyes and ears. It’s a weird kind of Tolkeinesque world-building by way of R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet.
This was effortlessly sustained by the other two parts of the mixtape trilogy The Weeknd released in 2011, Thursday and Echoes of Silence, which served more or less as expansion packs. The former just adds a slightly different colour palette, the Vice City to House of Balloon’s GTAIII. Accordingly, I was hoping December’s Echoes of Silence might be his San Andreas, in terms of expanding every bit of ambition in the original to obscene proportions.
It’s not, but it does sharpens the aesthetic to a lethal point, then turn it back on pop, to shows how it’s not all that far from, for example, the work of Michael Jackson – it opens with a cover of MJ’s Dirty Diana, which doesn’t sound too dissimilar to the original, just filtered through that unmistakable Weeknd worldview.
The three albums have distinct personalities, but there’s the intertextuality runs deep, and each can be played back to back, flowing almost imperceptibly into one another, to create a two-hour mood piece. It’s testament to Tesfate’s masterful control over the aesthetic parameters of this world– so much so that it’s jarring to hear Superhero and Party, tracks from around 2008, released recently, when he was doing something completely different, closer to trad R’n’B, and frankly much less interesting.
The Weeknd snuck into an incredible number of corners during 2011 – the music I talked about when I was drunk, slipping it into playlists so everyone else could hear it, owning the week I lived in a hostel in Bath and playing at being a games journalist, being the only album on the my mobile’s SD card, so soundtracking a lot of morning tube journeys and late night walks home.
(This piece is a palimpsest, etched over the remains of something I wrote back in June, about the joys of playing House of Balloons back to back, on constant repeat. I ended up back-to-backing the album, with barely an exhale between end and beginning, for pretty much the entire next six months. I still have absolutely no idea of most of the lyrics.)
There’s a sense that perhaps I’m enjoying something beyond the music, something that exists in the images it sets off in my head, in the meeting point between the videos and photographs and what other people said.
That tends to be at least inherent in the criticisms of The Weeknd (of which there have a been a lot, often from writers whose opinions I respect) – that somehow these aren’t songs that Tesfaye is selling. And, okay, compared to, say, Childish Gambino – to pick another artist whose work I enjoyed immensely in 2011 – the pleasure is less immediate, the songs are less likely to grab me by the lapels while I’m listening to them.
Admittedly, a lot of the time, I let The Weeknd slip into the background, using it as a sort of musical wallpaper, while something else goes in the foreground. But if it’s ambient, it’s aggressively ambient. It’s the kind of wallpaper that, suddenly feeling overly sensitive to everything, you rub your fingers over, and appreciate every inch of texture.
It’s music that feels physical, in every possible way – not just how it occasionally taps into your muscles and makes them jump and twitch in the nearest approximation of dancing you can manage on the morning commute, but like its ideas form something three-dimensional, so dense you could almost reach out and touch it. And it is dense – all this information is condensed down into these small aural packages, like Grant Morrison hyperstorytelling or something.
But, yes, perhaps I don’t enjoy House of Balloons in the way I do other music. The lyrics don’t mean a lot to me; to be honest, I can’t participate in the discussion about whether the songs are misogynist or misguided, because the words are just extra sounds to me. Which is fine, because the sounds are the whole point of the thing.
Tesfaye has a delicate voice, which generally sits on top of the song, skimming along the surface, while in depths there are these bassy, creaky thumpings. In the space in between, all sorts of stuff can happen: The Beach House sample Loft Music squashes out of shape, so it feels like an uncovered artefact of ancient pop rather than something from 2008. The bit where a woman’s voice joins in on The Party & The After Party, throbbing just under the song. The statement-of-intent looping squeal that introduces House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls – and from there, the song slides into a fluid underlying push/pull, with just the slightest buzzy echo, before introducing all sorts of other sounds and layering them on top, or underneath.
Every single moment on House of Balloons sounds absolutely gorgeous – whether through headphones, my old beaten-up laptop speakers, or my relatively good sound system. There are entire clubs’ worth of speakers going wasted on not playing The Weeknd constantly. I say we take the Gatecrashers of this world (rubbish club, fantastic sound systems) by force, and turn them into cathedrals of sound.
And then, the next morning, walking the wet streets, trying to scratch the tinnitus echo of the songs from our inner ear with a little finger, we can live in that fantasy world that House of Balloons taught us about. Of course, that would mean we’d just have to start enjoying the songs on their own merits.