Trilogies can be a tricky thing to pull off. If you think about some of the more famous film trilogies – say Star Wars or Lord of the Rings – the first one tends to be okay, the second one is generally the best and the last one is alright but the novelty has worn off somewhat. Musical trilogies are a rare thing, but Canadian R’n’B maestro The Weeknd, aka Abel Tesfaye, has attempted one. In nine months. Opening mixtape House of Balloons had most hipsters salivating at the prospect of an act who was skilful at piecing together synths and drumbeats with a distinct voice that was both self-referential and self-destructive. By Thursday, people were already saying that the novelty was beginning to wear off. So on this, Echoes of Silence, has there been a twist in the tale?
Sadly the answer is no, although there are some major highlights. Unfortunately, these high points on the album all come at the beginning of the mixtape. Echoes of Silence is truly top-heavy in terms of ideas: opener ‘D.D.’ sees Tesfaye straining his voice into a distinct Michael Jackson mould over pounding drums. It’s the indication that The Weeknd might be able to pull off a final flourish, backed up by the beguiling ‘Montreal’. Its apparently smooth and polished sound is subverted by the haunting vocal loops and Tesfaye’s almost unnerving insistence that he’s not to blame for a relationship breakdown, though this is softened by his admittance, albeit in French, that ‘I was crying/ I wasn’t crying.’
‘Outside’ is the first minimal ballad, more notable for its use of gentle, oriental synths than it is for Tesfaye’s voice or wordcraft. It is probably the most beautiful song musically on the mixtape, quickly shattered by the most overtly aggressive track ‘XO / The Host’, which introduces some distinctly disturbing lyrical elements to Echoes of Silence. Here, the loud-quiet-loud structure allows Tesfaye to sing of the tale of making a young woman destitute, sucking her in to a cycle of going back to him and leaving. But it’s ‘Initiation’ which takes the disquiet to the extreme, as the use of voice-distortion allows Tesfaye to take on the role of a Goblin during a drug-fuelled kidnapping.
Though this seems to be some of the best, if unsettling, work The Weeknd has done in terms of narrative lyrics, it’s unfortunately a downward spiral from there. ‘Next’ is almost too mired in R’n’B cliches to be considered an ironic take on the genre, while ‘The Fall’ has an interesting spiralling synth, but it’s too overshadowed by Tesfaye’s voice which by this time becomes grating and somewhat annoying. He doesn’t display an awful lot of vocal range, the limits to which are explored and left dormant after ‘D.D.’ By ‘The Fall,’ no inventive synths can detract from the fact that he sounds more and more like a cross between MJ and the various members of JLS. Pitchfork compared the closing title track with The Knife’s ‘Still Light’ but this is highly unkind to the Swedish band. While ‘Echoes of Silence’ is restrained, relying only on a single, simple piano melody, Tesfaye doesn’t adopt a quieter or even more sentimental tone and can no longer hold an audience’s interest. While ‘Still Light’ examined morbidity and the prospect of death and transcendence with great deft, ‘Echoes of Silence’ doesn’t strayvery far away from the general sexual theme of the mixtape, making what should be a beautiful denouement a seedy end to the trilogy.
It is safe to say that while Echoes of Silence sometimes keeps invention alive, it mostly falls into tried-and-tested R’n’B patterns and Tesfaye’s voice is too limited to add that sense of intrigue that could have been created by guest vocalists or more distortion technology. You have to commend The Weeknd for attempting something so audacious in such a short space of time, but it’s meant a decline in genuine quality and as Tesfaye sings himself, ‘you’re just the same old song.’ The novelty has well and truly worn off.
You can grab all of The Weeknd’s mixtapes from the-weeknd.com and find out more about the band at the same address. For a preview of their material check out below their standout track taken from the ‘House Of Balloons’ Mixtape – ‘The Morning’.