By Athena Serrano
The Weeknd, whose given name is Abel Tesfaye, knows the feeling of being stuck in limbo during a two-year pandemic, and of remaining in the dark for far too long. On his new fifth studio album Dawn FM, he steps boldly into the light.
“It’s the album I’ve always wanted to make,” Tesfaye teased GQ in August. Tesfaye delivers on this grand claim, filling the collection with so many psychedelic disco, dance-pop, and funk-pop party tracks that, listening to them, you feel absorbed in overwhelming emotion. And he’s also gotten some help from all-star rappers like Lil Wayne and Tyler, the Creator, as well as an unexpected appearance from actor Jim Carrey, who plays the role of a soothing radio host.
Tesfaye captures the disorientation of the in-between. As he explained to Billboard in November, he imagined the listener having an out-of-body experience, as if they are navigating the road from death to the afterlife.
“And they’re stuck in this purgatory state, which I always imagined would be like being stuck in traffic waiting to reach the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “And while you’re stuck in traffic, they got a radio station playing in the car, with a radio host guiding you to the light and helping you transition to the other side. So it could feel celebratory, could feel bleak, however you want to make it feel, but that’s what The Dawn is for me.”
Although Tesfaye still maintains his reputation for making music about sex, drugs, and partying, the LP is also an existential plea to free yourself from regrets and shame. Below, we unpack each song on Dawn FM track by track and mood by mood.
“Dawn FM” (ft. Jim Carrey)
Listen to it when you’re feeling: ready to unwind.
Key lyric: “We’ll be there to hold your hand and guide you through this painless transition”
The intro and title track of the album begins with a hypnotic ambience and chirping birds, luring you as if you are traveling into another dimension. Tesfaye narrates in an echoey voice with a chorus about wanting to take the lead, this time by himself: “This part I do alone / I’ll take my lead, I’ll take my lead on this road / And I need something to hold / Make me believe in make-beliefs.”
The track then transitions to the legendary Jim Carrey reporting in a low voice on the radio: “You are now listening to 103.5 Dawn FM / You’ve been in the dark for way too long / It’s time to walk into the light / And accept your fate with open arms.” This will not be the last you will hear from Carrey, but he and Tesfaye are here to assure you they will hold your hand and guide you through this ephemeral moment as you enjoy the music to come.
Listen to it when you’re feeling: deep in your depressing thoughts.
Key lyric: “It’s 5 a.m. and I’m feeling nihilist / I know there’s nothing after this / Obsessing over aftermaths / Apocalypse and hopelessness”
On this funk-pop track, Tesfaye is awake in the early morning, feeling empty and getting high on his need for his lover to be there with him again. “I want you ’cause we’re both insane / I’m staring into the abyss / I’m lookin’ at myself again / I’m dozing off to R.E.M,” he sings. He voices that a physical presence would be comforting and make him feel safe. And his lover also keeps him in check (“I know you won’t let me O.D.”).
“How Do I Make You Love Me?”
Listen to it when you’re: begging to be loved.
Key lyric: “How do I make you love me? / How do I make you fall for me? / How do I make you want me / And make it last eternally?”
As many of his songs speak openly about earthly delights, you’d think Tesfaye wouldn’t care so much about what people think of him. But he admits he still craves approval from the one he adores on this dance-pop track: “I only want what’s right in front of me / It’s quite unusual / Seeking approval / Begging for it desperately.” Wealth and fame are not his top desires.
“Take My Breath”
Listen to it when you’re feeling: hedonistic and kinky.
Key lyric: “I know temptation is the devil in disguise”
The album transitions smoothly into an extended version of the lead single of Dawn FM. On this retro ‘70s and ‘80s disco track, Tesfaye is willing to take your breath — and embrace his kinky fantasies. He describes his partner as someone who “loves to be on the edge.” Even the music video accompanying this track shows “nobody does it better” than she does while tightly pulling him in a consensual chokehold. Tesfaye wants her to make that decadent bliss “last forever.”
Listen to it when you’re feeling: selfish about your needs.
Key lyric: “I don’t want to sacrifice / For your love / I try / I don’t want to sacrifice / But I love my time”
Backed by electric guitar, Tesfaye warns potential lovers and friends with benefits against catching feelings due to his lack of interest in a committed relationship. He references the harsh winters in his hometown of Toronto as a metaphor for his coldness in romance: “I was born in a city / Where the winter nights don’t ever sleep / So this life’s always with me / The ice inside my veins will never bleed.” Tesfaye doesn’t deny he enjoys company, but he isn’t up for monogamy at the moment.
“A Tale By Quincy” (ft. Quincy Jones)
Listen to it when you’re feeling: contemplative about the implications of your past.
Key lyric: “Looking back is a bitch, innit?”
On this synthesizer-heavy interlude, producer Quincy Jones reflects back on his childhood and upbringing. This track is a relatable parallel to Tesfaye’s own narrative. Jones discusses how an ill, absent mother and an abusive stepmother majorly impacted him, bleeding into his later familial and romantic relationships. “Whenever I got too close to a woman, I would cut her off,” he admits. “Part of that was vindictive and partially based on fear. But it was also totally subconscious.” It’s amazing how your earliest memories can shape how you perceive others.
“Out of Time”
Listen to it when you’re feeling: regretful of the hurt you’ve caused.
Key lyric: “I look back and now I realize”
With a smooth transition back to ‘80s synths, Tesfaye sings of his desire for a second chance. He admits to being responsible for the cause of a breakup: “The last few months, I’ve been workin’ on me, baby / There’s so much trauma in my life / I’ve been so cold to the ones who loved me, baby.” His ex was originally the one begging “with drowning eyes” to stay, but now that she’s found someone else, it has reversed. Tesfaye tells her that if things don’t work out with her current partner, she knows his line.
Carrey makes another appearance at the end of the track, reporting on 103.5 Dawn FM radio that you are out of time but you are almost reaching your destination. He assures the listener with a nod to one of his iconic film roles in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: “Before you’re completely engulfed in the blissful embrace of that little light you see in the distance / Soon you’ll be healed, forgiven, and refreshed / Free from all trauma, pain, guilt, and shame.”
“Here We Go… Again” (ft. Tyler, the Creator)
Listen to it when you’re: falling in love again but wary.
Key lyric: “But you’d rather love and lost with tears / Than never love at all”
On this slow track, Tesfaye and Tyler, the Creator tell a cautionary tale of what it’s like to be in love while also having fame and wealth because of potential users: “Your girlfriend’s tryna pair you with somebody more famous / But instead you ended up with someone so basic, faceless / Someone to take your pictures and frame it.” Tyler even raps about how love may not be unconditional: “Although this love is strong to me / Some things can change, go wrong with me / We don’t know how it’s gonna be / Forever is too long to me.” But regardless, Tesfaye thinks it’s better to risk heartbreak than never love at all.
Listen to it when you’re feeling: friend-zoned.
Key lyric: “I love you so / But we can’t get close / You’re my best friend now”
With repetitive heavy bass to emphasize the drama, Tesfaye is stuck in a friends-with-benefits situation where he secretly wants more than sex. But he also doesn’t want to lose his partner: “Oh, I don’t want to be responsible / For your heart if we fall / ‘Cause I’ll get clumsy and tear it apart.” He reminds her to not take it further and just focus on the friendship, but boundaries were crossed (“I thought you weren’t like that”).
“Is There Someone Else?”
Listen to it when you’re feeling: suspicious of an unfaithful partner.
Key lyric: “Oh, is there someone else or not? / ‘Cause I wanna keep you close / I don’t wanna lose my spot”
Since their relationship has been straining, Tesfaye has a bad feeling that his partner is cheating on him (“I felt it creeping up every day”). He admits he wasn’t always an honest person in the past (“’Cause I used to be the one who was lying”), but he cares deeply for his lover and wants to be with her forever. But if she’s betraying him or the guy she’s cheating with, it’s going to hurt everyone.
Listen to it when you’re feeling: protective.
Key lyric: “Let me be there / I can be there ’til you’re whole”
On this sympathetic track, Abel wants to stand by love interest and make her feel appreciated: “Let me be there / Let me be there for your heart / Let me love you / Let me love you like you need.” He is also empathetic of the pain she’s felt in the past: “It’s OK, baby / I promise that I felt worse / Back then, I was starry eyed / And now I’m so cynical.”
“Every Angel Is Terrifying”
Listen to it when you’re feeling: lured to enter a different world.
Key lyric: “You will enter a world beyond your imagination”
Tesfaye speaks about the terror of beauty on the second electronic interlude of the album, noting that the angels we see in pop culture are more frightening when reading their actual Biblical depictions. An advertisement accompanies, marketing “the exotic, bizarre and beautiful world of ‘After Life’” with “a future out of control / And an experience you will never forget.” If you’re interested, you can dial 1-800-414-4444, but don’t say we didn’t warn you.
“Don’t Break My Heart”
Listen to it when you’re feeling: afraid of being hurt again.
Key lyric: “I can’t take another heartbreak or I’ll end it all”
This dreamy track will make you feel as paralyzed as Tesfaye felt. He sings about how he’s mesmerized by someone he sees in the club. He instinctively knows she is right for him and “keeps coming back for more,” but he is afraid. “Just don’t break my heart / Don’t let me down, please,” he sings. “Don’t you break my heart / I don’t know if I can take it anymore.” He doesn’t want the past to repeat (“And the girl I used to love / We broke up in the club / And I almost died in the discotheque”).
“I Heard You’re Married” (ft. Lil Wayne)
Listen to it when you’re feeling: deceived.
Key lyric: “And I thought you were someone I could be with / And it kills me that I’m sharing you”
Tesfaye sings about his shame in being involved with a married woman in this rhythmic track (“You manifested this, but girl, I blame myself”). Although he usually may not be interested in committed relationships, he ended up catching strong feelings during the fling and was deceived to find out the truth about her. Tesfaye still maintains his dignity by telling her off: “If you don’t love him / Then do yourself a favor and just leave him / Your number in my phone, I’m gon’ delete it / Girl, I’m way too grown for that deceivin’. Lil Wayne appears in the third verse with a line that hits like a truck: “That shit ain’t fly, bitch.”
“Less Than Zero”
Listen to it when you’re feeling: not feeling enough.
Key lyric: “I’ll always be less than zero / You tried your best with me, I know”
In this electronic track mixed with guitar-pop strings, Tesfaye sings about how he does not feel worthy because of the trauma and darkness he holds. “’Cause I can’t get it out of my head / No, I can’t shake this feeling that crawls in my bed,” he sings in the chorus. But it doesn’t mean he wants to be stuck with his demons forever: “I try to hide it, but I know you know me / I try to fight it, but I’d rather be free.” He begs for his partner to be understanding to no avail (“Now you’d rather leavе me / Than to watch me die in your arms, oh”).
“Phantom Regret By Jim” (ft. Jim Carrey)
Listen to it when you’re feeling: in need of wisdom to feel free.
Key lyric: “Heaven’s for those who let go of regret”
Carrey returns to close the album with an encouraging poem on which to reflect (“It’s time to look back on the things you thought you owned”) on your life. He asks you several open-ended questions: “How many grudges did you take to your grave? / When you weren’t liked or followed, how did you behave? / Was it often a dissonant chord you were strumming? / Were you ever in tune with the song life was humming?” Carrey says that to feel free from pain, you must learn to let go of your regrets. “You gotta unwind your mind, train your soul to align. In other words, you gotta be heaven to see heaven.”