"My Dear Melancholy," bills itself as "House of Balloons Pt. 2" but is instead an investigation into whether The Weeknd has any business catching feelings.
Let's talk about Apple Music's description of The Weeknd's new EP, My Dear Melancholy, (yes, the title actually ends with a comma for some inexplicable reason), for a second:
The Weeknd's 2016 album, "Starboy," was the musical equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster: action-packed, star-studded, with a little something for everyone. Here, he returns to his unfiltered, art-house roots with a release so intimate and tortured, you’ll feel like a fly on his bedroom wall. Stuttering snares, gauzy production, and R-rated lyrics about sex and drugs (“I got two red pills to take the blues away,” he coos through a vocoder on “Privilege”) paint a vivid picture of a brooding Lothario—one that strongly resembles the dark artist we initially met on "House of Balloons."
Sure, these descriptions tend to be exaggerated— remember the one for Beautiful Thugger Girls that began by comparing Young Thug to Frank Sinatra and Luther Vandross?— but in this case, that breathless copy written by an Apple employee is part of a bigger pop culture mechanism that surrounds releases like My Dear Melancholy, (yes, I'm going to keep typing that goddamn comma every time). What "type" of release is The Weeknd's new EP, exactly? As far as PR goes, it's the perfect embodiment of the "back to basics" trope.
Abel Tesfaye himself may not be feeding into this idea of My Dear Melancholy, as House of Balloons Pt. 2, but A) if he's retained anything from his early days, its his near-silent public persona, and B) he's got plenty of famous friends to spread that narrative for him. Last month, Travis Scott tweeted that the yet-to-be-announced project was "Like when I heard [The Weeknd] the first time," and after its release, Lebron James wrote on Instagram, "He back in his 'dark side' mood on this project which i Love!!!!," adding that it had "House of balloons type vibes." Coupled with the Apple Music description and a quick search of people tweeting the words "House of Balloons" within the past week, the fact that My Dear Melancholy, is either reminiscent of Tesfaye's breakout project or baiting comparisons to it is clear.
At this point, a brief recap of Tesfaye's career seems warranted. Toronto American Apparel employee begins making music about lust, depression, and drug use with one of his friends, a producer who backs the dark songs with fittingly hip, moody beats. Tesfaye gets discovered, meets better-established collaborators, makes House of Balloons with them, and fails to credit his original producer. The Weeknd blows up, books festivals, falters a bit with major-label debut Kiss Land, but within four years tops the chart with a deceptively family-friendly song about cocaine that's produced by international pop sensation Max Martin. His most recent album, Starboy, is even bigger.
This position of rarified success that's so far removed from an artist's origins is one of two common places in a career arc to make the "back to basics" move, the other being more of a last-ditch effort that comes after a string of failures and an inability to eclipse early albums' popularity. For other contemporary examples of the two, look no further than Future's DS2, a sequel to an early mixtape released at the peak of his 2015 hype, and Migos' Back to the Bando, an obvious attempt to reclaim the group's trap roots after Yung Rich Nation flopped. Obviously, the former position is preferable.
Here I have to stop and give Tesfaye credit because considering that the "basics" he's seeking to recapture basically boil down to darkness and depravity, it'd be a little rich if he got all "Bring the drugs, baby, I could bring my pain" again when, by all appearances, he's on top of the world. However, within My Dear Melancholy,'s opening seconds, it's clear he has good reason to spiral back into bleakness. More than anything else, this is a breakup EP, with all songs relating to Tesfaye's recent split with Selena Gomez. He is, as he was for most of his famed Trilogy, clearly bummed out.
Some of that manifests itself like it did on House of Balloons. That line from "Privilege" that the Apple Music description quotes ("I got two red pills to take the blues away") is a clear callback to Tesfaye's old mentality, as is further hammered home on another line in that song, "I'ma drink the pain away, I'll be back to my old ways." Elsewhere, he engages in the nihilistic sex talk that defined his earlier work: "This dick is still an option," "This sex will get you high without no other substance," "I'll come to put myself between your legs, not between your heart," "Mindless sex is how he feels." Sometimes he even makes Gomez out to be similar to the nameless, depressed girls that popped up in his early songs: "You'd rather something toxic so I poison myself again," "All the nights you slept alone dryin' your eyes, and all the nights you thought about takin' your life." These are dog whistles for day-one Weeknd fans. But what's actually going on throughout My Dear Melancholy, is quite different.
The Weeknd is no longer numb, whether that means enjoying the fact that he can't feel his face, or being numbed to the pain by nihilism. "I said I didn't feel nothing, baby" he sings on "Call Out My Name," "But I lied." Three tracks later, he's crying and getting suicidal, something that you could definitely imagine a younger Tesfaye doing, but something he never would have admitted back then. It's clear he actually cared a good deal about this decayed relationship, calling Gomez "The best I ever had" and saying another girl "wasn't even half of you," and on the EP, he reckons with the fact that he's never been this emotional before. If My Dear Melancholy, has a thesis statement, it's "I ain't got no business catchin' feelings." The Weeknd is now diving headfirst into territory that used to run counter to everything he stood for.
That's strike one against the prevailing narrative. Strike two is the EP's sound, which apart from the brooding "Privilege," couldn't have less in common with Trilogy. Opener "Call Out My Name" sounds like pomp-heavy 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack cut "Earned It" if the orchestra's parts were mapped out onto piano and vocal samples. "Wasted Times" plays around with dance music more so than any Weeknd songs outside of the "Rockin"/"Secrets" stretch on Starboy. Most obviously, "Hurt You" sounds like a minor-key take on Starboy hit "I Feel it Coming," which makes sense when you learn that Daft Punk members were involved with both songs. Tesfaye may be covering new, deeper emotional territory but his sound remains very much in the upper-echelon pop world.
All of this is to say: pop music narratives are usually wrong and serve no one, and My Dear Melancholy, is intriguing in its broadening of Tesfaye's dynamic range but confused in its tonal message. Tesfaye uses his breakup as an excuse to return to the "darker" sound of his earlier work, but uses newfound collaborators and, shockingly, a bit of maturity to ensure that there's no return to the murky nihilism of Trilogy, which leaves us with a mixed bag. It was smart to leave this as an EP. Who knows, maybe Tesfaye will continue plumbing the depths of his soul and come out with an album that's actually as introspective as he seems to want to be on the moments of My Dear Melancholy, that aren't concerned with getting back to the basics. One thing's for sure: there will never be another House of Balloons, and it's a fool's errand to attempt making one.