The Sound of the ’80s Rises in The Weeknd’s “Dawn FM”


An aged Weeknd stares mournfully for the cover of “Dawn FM”.

By Teddy Kossnar, Staff Writer

“Dawn FM” is the latest release from Canadian singer-songwriter Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd. It’s hard to deny the status of absolute superstardom he’s garnered within the last few years. With numerous chart-topping smash hits, such as “Blinding Lights” and “The Hills,” to his 2021 Super Bowl half-time show performance, to his critically acclaimed album, “After Hours,” The Weeknd has taken the throne as the number one R&B singer in the world. Now, he’s back with a new look and sound, but does it stand up to his previous output?

Putting aside the… let’s say, questionable cover, one of the most striking features of “Dawn FM” is how heavily it’s inspired by ’80s synthpop, with each song being populated with polished synths, silky basslines and a driving backbeat. If you consider the album “After Hours” to be The Weeknd merely dipping his toes into the ’80s sound, “Dawn FM,” goes headfirst with full force into the sound.

With 16 tracks, the album is fairly lengthy at 51 minutes, but never feels like it overstays its welcome. This is due to another unique aspect of the record — nearly every song segues into the next effortlessly. It’s done so well that it can take a second to realize, wait, the next song already started? (Listen to the transition between “How Do I Make You Love Me?” and “Take My Breath.” It’s amazing.) It helps to make the project feel like a cohesive piece of art as opposed to a collection of tracks, an issue that plagues many modern albums.

And since we’re talking about “Dawn FM” being a cohesive piece of art, there’s also an underlying concept that brings the record’s tracks together. The music is presented as what you’d hear from a radio broadcast playing from the afterlife that’s titled, as you guessed, “Dawn FM.” Some tracks are punctuated with a nice retro “Dawn FM” jingle, and there are also a number of radio interludes sprinkled throughout the tracklist, with one even including a whole radio-style mock advertisement. The Weeknd explained in a Billboard interview, “Picture the album being like the listener is dead. 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. 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 [Dawn FM] is for me.”

The bulk of this record’s best material is found within the first 7 tracks — following the outro of the track “Out of Time”, most of all songs aren’t nearly as interesting or memorable. Much of the energy that picked up from the start of the record seems to dissipate, with a shift from danceable pop bangers to slower, more atmospheric and mellow numbers. Don’t get me wrong — the songs that populate the latter half of the album aren’t bad — each brings their own unique vibe and soundscape to the table. However, I can’t see myself picking out these tracks to listen to individually — while the instrumentation, production, and vocals on them are impeccable, in terms of songwriting, they aren’t particularly catchy or interesting enough to stand on their own. They shine the brightest when listened to in the context of the album, which is aided with the smooth transitions between the tracks.

If you were expecting to find some smash-hit singles like “Blinding Lights” or “Save Your Tears” on the record, you’ll be a bit disappointed. While I can see a few songs rising in the charts, there’s really nothing that compares to the pop perfection of The Weeknd’s previous chart-toppers.

My favorite tracks are the ones that utilize the ’80-synthpoppy sound to its fullest potential — moments like the chorus of “Take My Breath,” where sleek synth chords slam in during the main hook or how the synth chords on “Sacrifice” follow The Weeknd’s vocal melody to create danceable energy on top of the groovy rhythm. Both the tracks “Dawn FM” and “Gasoline” utilize dark synthesizers to create an eerie atmosphere for a perfect introduction to the album, while “Less Than Zero” uses gorgeous, airy synths to accentuate the song’s ethereal quality.

The strongest aspect of this record is just how amazing the vocals and production are. Everything just sounds perfect, from the synthesizers, to the drums to the bass. Abel’s voice sounds angelic on each of these tracks, further cementing his place as one of the best singers in pop.

The album also features verses from Tyler, the Creator and Lil Wayne, but they honestly seemed entirely unnecessary. Both verses are very brief and don’t add anything to their respective songs, with bog-standard ‘longing for love’ lyrics. Much potential was missed with these two features — I would have loved for them to play a bigger part in their songs, forming the chorus or introduction as opposed to a forgettable verse that sits at the end. Oh, and Jim Carrey is also featured as the Dawn FM radio DJ. When I initially saw his name listed as a feature on the final track, I was very puzzled… Jim Carrey’s not a singer… right? But, I have to say — he unequivocally had the best feature on the record. Bookending the album with radio host dialogue, Carrey utilizes an eerie, yet relaxing voice all while he talks you through the process of dying and death. Dark synthesizers and The Weeknd’s ethereal vocals swell alongside his monologue on “Phantom Regret by Jim” to create a perfect closer to the album.

“Dawn FM” sees The Weeknd take a sharp turn into the ’80s aesthetic, but it never sounds derivative or dated. He masterfully executes a transformative throwback to synthpop, with modern production and stunning vocals. However, the record stumbles a bit in the latter half due to more forgettable tracks afflicted with weaker songwriting. Overall, though, this album offers a well-crafted experience that definitely deserves your listen-through. Dawn FM got my full approval with a 7/10.

Standout tracks: “Gasoline,” “How Do I Make You Love Me?,” “Take My Breath,” “Sacrifice,” “Out of Time,” “Less than Zero”