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Whether you think Abel Tesfaye is a tragically over-sexed lothario or a pitiful example of man in thrall to his penis, there’s no denying the influence of the music on Trilogy. Alongside Frank Ocean and A$AP Rocky, The Weeknd came to define 2011 as a year where the best music was handed out for free in online mixtapes. Frank Ocean has since released Channel Orange to mass acclaim and US sales of over 332,500. A$AP Rocky vindicated his $3 million record deal with Sony and went on to play Lana Del Rey's JFK in the video for 'National Anthem'. As for Tesfaye, he signed to Universal and is now re-releasing his three mixtapes from last year in remastered form with three new tracks.
Even if you haven’t yet heard House Of Balloons, Thursday or Echoes Of Silence, you’ll be familiar with their woe-is-R&B vibe. Usher's 'Climax' elevated the self-loathing lothario schtick into a Top 40 hit, while on 'Crew Love' Drake and The Weeknd combined to create a hyper-morose slice of Canadian miserabelia. A standout track from last year's Take Care, it chalked up a hefty amount of radio play and would later be covered by Conor Maynard as the B-side to his career-launching single 'Can't Say No'. As it happens, Conor's debut album Contrast also contains a song which was penned by Frank Ocean.
Last year, The Weeknd was a distinct figure in a minor cultural revolution. This year, he’s just a supple hill in an ever-evolving landscape and Trilogy hardly seems like an ideal way to advance his depraved cause. "You don’t know what’s in store,” croons the notoriously cryptic singer on opening track ‘High For This’, but the grand irony is that you’ll know exactly what’s in store: a merciless cocktail of drink, drugs and carnal relations. You’ll also know that House Of Balloons is a sample-friendly classic, Thursday starts well but rounds off into a mediocre abyss and Echoes Of Silence revels in hitting rock bottom.
As a comprehensive document of a specific moment in time, Trilogy is untouchable. Narcissistic sex has been around since Eve was created for the benefit Adam but The Weeknd’s intimate detailing of his seduction techniques is a twenty-first-century revelation. In a different age, we’d be too prudish or disinterested to stand for well over two hours of coital minutae. Now sordid declarations like Tesfaye’s are par for the course; what marks him out his lack of repentance. “Saying, ‘This ain't nothing’ but it's all I need. And the peak ain't reached but the peak is all I feel,” he boasts prophetically on ‘The Fall’. It’s less a song, more of a mantra; sensation is all-important, consequence is not.
Attempt to listen to Trilogy from start to finish and you’ll find its excess oppressive. The shrill synth lines, muddy bass and hip-quivering falsetto easily meld into each other, losing their foreboding effect. While a gradual refinement is noticeable from House Of Balloons to Echoes Of Silence, a lack of breathing space between the tracks does them no favours. You’re better off dedicating yourself to each album’s meaty serving of revelry and regret in turn.
The addition of three new songs actively encourages this approach. ‘Til Dawn (Here Comes The Sun)’, ‘Valerie’ and ‘Twenty Eight’ have been moulded to Tesfaye’s narrative of spiralling decline where all sympathy is eroded and fatalistic fascination reigns supreme. “I’m so wrong, I’m so wrong, to let you in my home,” he mournfully wails on the latter track, torn between new love and old habits. When it comes to his remastering job, The Weeknd hasn’t been afraid to mute coarse rushes of subwoofer fuzz for a greater sonic balance and clarity. Most of the time, the differences aren’t noticeable nor are they notably better.
Whereas Frank Ocean and A$AP Rocky both used their mixtapes as a platform for greater achievements, the same can’t be said for The Weeknd. By releasing his Trilogy at the back end of 2012, he’s fully embodied the character you assumed was exaggerated for effect. Stuck in a rut of behaviour where his latest tracks are barely different from ‘What You Need’, interviews are still off the table and there’s no news on a full album of fresh material; this may be as good as we get from Abel Tesfaye. In that case, it’s worth cherishing.