The comma at the end of this album’s title is very telling. Commas are short pauses in writing, but in this case, it’s part of a formal salutation as if starting a letter. So when I see the name My Dear Melancholy, to me it means that words that follow are an open letter to the writer’s feelings. And Abel Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd, has many feelings. The Toronto artist returns to the darkest depths of his heart to express a pain that’s all too relatable for what is an R&B highlight of 2018 so far.
It’s kind of a running joke that people get caught up in their feelings and send texts made up of song lyrics to their partners or exes. It’s corny, sure, but why do people do that? On a base level, it’s probably because an artist has captured their feelings a lot better than they themselves ever could in a given moment. This is the primary reason why people, including me, love The Weeknd despite his shortcomings. Who can’t relate to falling for someone against your better judgment, or catching yourself chasing someone who doesn’t want you the same way? There’s a lot to unpack there, but the music’s raw emotion is nonetheless hard-hitting and made for these relations. There’s six songs here and they are all classic Tesfaye. There’s hardly a pop music bone here, a near 180-degree turn from Starboy and Beauty Behind the Madness which, for the record, I still really liked. This mini-album is a brutal breakup story, parsed out cleanly in stages.
The first track, “Call Out My Name”, is a reflective look at a relationship freshly torn apart. Two lines in the chorus resonate strongly: ‘I want you to stay even though you don’t want me‘ and ‘Girl, why can’t you wait ’til I fall out of love?‘ The Weeknd shows how he leverages his feelings over those of his ex. It’s illogical (love hardly ever is logical) and selfish, but it’s understandable why he feels this way. The second verse is more telling when he employs a staggered cadence to sing ‘I said I didn’t feel nothing, baby, but I lied/I almost cut a piece of myself for your life‘. It’s apparent at this point that this track is about his relationship with fellow singer Selena Gomez. She had complications with Lupus throughout 2017 when the two dated and needed a kidney transplant. While Gomez’s best friend eventually became her donor, Tesfaye had also considered giving up his own kidney for her which gives this line both a literal and metaphorical meaning. It hits hard.
“Wasted Times” is mostly about perspective and jealousy. The beat is washed out with hearty bass, but otherwise sparse. Lyrics are regretful, the hook begging to know who his ex is with now and finishes with these two lines: ‘Don’t make me run up on ’em, got me blowin’ up their spot/’Cause I ain’t got no business catchin’ feelings anyway‘. It’s (sadly) pretty common to see scorned exes, particularly men, attempt to lash out and posture against an ex-partner’s new beau. It’s immature, illogical, abusive and, again, there’s a lot to unpack there, particularly about how toxic masculinity negatively informs relationships and love. Tesfaye seems at least partially self-aware of how ridiculous his initial reaction is with the second quoted line. This whole song plays out like an internal monologue swarming with sadness and anger, but also sees The Weeknd employ his lustful tendencies.
“I Was Never There” focuses on coping and recovery… or perhaps the lack thereof. It’s no secret to those that have listened to The Weeknd before that his lyrics tend to focus on hedonism. Plenty of metaphors of love as a drug are in his music and this is yet another one, but placed in a specific context: ‘What makes a grown man wanna cry?/What makes him wanna take his life?/His happiness is never real/And mindless sex is how he feels‘. At a person’s worst, a person might turn to empty sex or other superficial physical relationships and drugs to cope and turn away one’s demons. Tesfaye has a history of using both to cope, knowing it’s not healthy:
‘Now I know what love is
And I know it ain’t you for sure
You’d rather something toxic
So, I poison myself again, again
‘Til I feel nothing in my soul‘
During this verse, the beat slows down immensely as if under the influence of something. The bass echoes, the hi-hats crawl and pianos lurch while the main vocal line remains unaffected. A similarly inebriated vibe permeates the final track, “Privilege”, where The Weeknd more explicitly owns up to his bad habits: ‘And I’mma fuck the pain away, and I know I’ll be okay/…/But I’mma drink the pain away, I’ll be back to my old ways/And I got two red pills to take the blues away‘. French trance producer Gesaffelstein contributes some trademark siren-like synths throughout that don’t exactly fit with the mood, but are nice to hear nonetheless.
Tesfaye is a destructive force unto himself. His music is a blurry mirror reflecting back to us the way we as people react to and recover from love gone bad. It’s ugly and pessimistic. The Weeknd‘s music captures those hopeless moments where we feel most vulnerable and insecure, maybe even used or wasted. It also captures how these feelings manifest into problematic behavior. In this, I believe it does more of a service because, for everything ill-advised in his lyrics, it’s a teachable moment and relatable to a lot of people.
This is what makes his music so visceral. It’s not for everyone; seeing a man in the throes of abusive, reactionary behavior might prove too real for those that have been on either end of it. While these themes may resonate with many people, that doesn’t make them healthy, and I think even the Toronto crooner is well-aware of that. Much like Danny Brown‘s haphazard, tragic raps about drugs, My Dear Melancholy, isn’t a blueprint for how to act, but is nevertheless an honest portrayal of the dark side of love and emotion.
Though Tesfaye’s stories may dive deep into problematic territory and interpersonal toxicity, they are very real and affecting. Pat Benetar said love is a battlefield, but where her riffs on relationships had tinges of hope, The Weeknd shows the war waged internally and how harmful mismanagement of emotions can be. This is beautifully damaged music, worth your time if you’re not turned off by the subject matter and crave something catchy and raw.
Notable Tracks: “Call Out My Name”; “Wasted Times”; “Hurt You”
FFO: Drake, Frank Ocean, Jhene Aiko