Few recent releases have had a more offhand kind of advance promotion than The Weeknd’s My Dear Melancholy,. It isn’t so much a surprise release as one announced with a shrug: “Should we drop Friday? I’m indifferent, to be honest,” ran the text message published by Abel Tesfaye on Instagram earlier this week. Indifference seems a curious attitude to take towards something on which a vast team of starry talent has worked: its supporting cast includes Skrillex, Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, Nicholas Jaar, French techno auteur and sometime Kanye West collaborator Gesaffelstein, plus songwriters and producers who’ve worked on everything from Camila Cabello’s Havana to Beyonce’s Formation. Perhaps its author’s apparent nonchalance is linked to My Dear Melancholy,’s brevity: at six tracks and barely 20 minutes long, it feels like an interstitial release rather than a major statement.
Or perhaps the apparent indifference is meant to signify that the Weeknd can no longer bring himself to care about anything much, crushed as he is by romantic disappointment. My Dear Melancholy, – whose title has a comma at the end, as if Tesfaye is beginning a letter to his own sadness – isn’t an album or EP so much as the equivalent of Tesafaye standing in his ex’s garden at 3am, pissed, holding a ghettoblaster over his head and bellowing along to Chicago’s If You Leave Me Now for 22 minutes. It even ends suddenly, as if she’s finally opened her bedroom window and thrown a shoe at him.
Every track either has the author protesting about being chucked, announcing he doesn’t care that he’s been chucked, or pleading to be unchucked. He wheedles, he cajoles, he begs. He tries a bit of enjoy-the-rest-of-your-life-then passive-aggression, and favours us with the legendary Solipsistic Male R&B Star’s Analysis of Where It All Went Wrong. “I put you on top, I put you on top, I claimed you so proudly and openly,” he wails, it being an article of faith among Solipsistic Male R&B Stars that relationships only ever fail because they treated the other party too well. If only I’d made her spend her birthday watching me play darts at the pub, we might still be together, etc
The Weeknd tells his love object he thinks he’s having some kind of nervous breakdown and it’s all her fault, threatens to end it all on at least two occasions, and attempts to make her jealous by suggesting he’s been having lots of sex. Then he tries to woo her back by laying on the kind of silver-tongued romantic charm surely no lady can resist: “I hope you know this dick is still an option.” Better still, he rhymes this with “I took my time to know the way your body functions”, a line that suggests he examined her digestive system, possibly with an endoscope. Unlikely, perhaps, but who knows what eldritch behaviour takes places in that libertine world of afterparties and hotel suites that he’s always banging on about?
Still, if you can get around the fact that the lyrics appear to have been written by R&B’s answer to that bloke who said he was going to continuously play piano in Bristol town centre until his girlfriend took him back, there’s a great deal to like about My Dear Melancholy,. It abandons the pick’n’mix and indeed hit-and-miss approach of previous album Starboy in favour of something more cohesive: uniformly downbeat and twilit, it flows really well.
At its least interesting, as on Call Out My Name, it offers up the kind of beige boo-hoo balladry that Sam Smith specialises in, albeit tricked out with more interesting sonic touches: the piano sounding like it was recorded underwater, the rest of the track echoing and ghostly. But the boring melodies are considerably outweighed by strong ones and the assembled team have come up with a subtly eclectic set of musical ideas. The chorus of Try Me is particularly ineffaceable; the heaving key-changes in I Was Never There give the song an unsettling, queasy quality; rendered in a more sunny style, Privilege would be a manifest chartbound banger.
Wasted Times takes the desolate urban atmospherics of Burial’s brand of dubstep and neatly attaches them to a song, while there’s something quietly audacious about the hook of I Was Never There: off-key, played on a synthesiser that squeals like a siren going off somewhere in the distance. The whirring, intermittent 808 drum machine and soft, echoing synths give Try Me the feeling of a mid-80s boogie track on the brink of collapse.
In a world of identikit Auto-Tune effects, there’s also something genuinely creative about how the EP continually manipulates its author’s voice, slathering on the distortion and robot effects in ways that sound disquieting and strange rather than wearyingly familiar. Perhaps My Dear Melancholy,’s musical invention and way with a tune will win its subject back around: certainly the music seems more likely to succeed than anything Tesfaye actually has to say for himself.