September 12, 2013

TEST SPINS: The Weeknd, Kiss Land

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By ALICE WANG

When The Weeknd, a.k.a Abel Tesfaye, self-released his trio of gripping mixtapes in 2011, the once anonymous Toronto native was quickly propelled into the PBR&B limelight. Following the exponential trajectory of his stardom, Tesfaye centers his first major studio debut, Kiss Land, on the oft-covered subject matter of touring life. We’ve heard it all before.

Unfortunately, in Tesfaye’s case, we really have — and quite recently. Technically, Kiss Land is The Weeknd’s fourth album in two-and-a-half years, and though the Trilogy mixtapes primarily discussed the joylessness of sex and drugs instead of the thrill, his sophomore effort merely expands on more of the same. Maybe this is Tesfaye’s crystallization of a thematic concept that’s been gestating within him since 2011, or maybe (perhaps more probably), this is just a redundancy in Tesfaye’s overly nihilistic, overly familiar worldview.

Nonetheless, if asphyxiation by moodiness is Tesfaye’s goal, asphyxiation is what listeners get. Kiss Land’s mood is palpably mournful. It’s an album of calluses and cold, where the beauty of decay trumps the beauty of creation. His sound is still pretty dark (and darkly pretty, actually), like sex music you’d play after a night of heavy narcotics abuse. And like the narcotics Tesfaye most likely ingests, Kiss Land is full of both molly highs and molly lows. The songs play like an oxymoron: lush chords and vocals over barren lyrics and textures. Sonically and lyrically, Kiss Land accurately portrays the cheap thrills of the touring lifestyle — as he whisper-sings in his title track, “White Russian when the sun hits, white Russians with the tongue tricks.”

For Tesfaye, love is vampiric — he squeezes blood out his victims to the very last drop. Lust is rampant but hollow, and he thrives on the ambiguity of his nocturnal clock and the blur of one night bleeding into the next. His lyrics would be overtly misogynistic were it not for the fact that Tesfaye most likely equally distrusts men and women in his state of addled despondency. Some of his more offensive lyrics are nonsensical, as in “Wanderlust”: “Good girls go to heaven / Bad girls go everywhere.” Others, as in “Kiss Land,” are downright appalling: “You can meet me in the room where the kisses ain’t free / You gotta pay with your body.” Nevertheless, “Wanderlust” proves to be a successful track sonically, pitting chillwave cool against upbeat chord progressions.

Jeff Weiss commented in The Washington Post that Tesfaye attends “The Derek Zoolander School of Songwriting” — every song he produces has the same look. Luckily, one thing hasn’t changed for the better: Tesfaye’s signature voice has the same high tremor as Michael Jackson’s and the same urgency as Prince’s, but it is altogether inimitable. Its ethereal strength sounds just as dichotomous as Tesfaye’s tracks: He places breathy vocals over metallic synths, analogous to the glitz that covers the desolation of his newly acquired fame. His falsetto trills over depraved subject matter, allowing his dystopian universe of strippers and substance abuse to grow with each high note. He croons in his opening track, “The Professional:” “You’re a somebody now / But what’s a somebody in a nobody town?”

Though in its entirety, Kiss Land sounds rather homogeneous, the album’s songs actually feature a spectrum of new sounds individually. “Belong to the World” may include a sample from Portishead’s “Machine Gun.” This “borrowed” percussion riff started much publicized Twitter beef between Tesfaye and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, but is altogether used triumphantly in the track. Progressing from Trilogy, “Belong to the World” sounds more honest and direct, like the polish a major label might bring to Tesfaye’s raw vocals. Likewise, he adds everything from distorted Asian pornography (as in “Kiss Land”) to excerpts of French monologues to his songs without sounding completely schizophrenic (a moderate success).

In the end, Kiss Land is a better-mastered continuation of Echoes of Silence, his final mixtape. Both albums create similarly immersive atmospheres with interesting textures. However, this still remains The Weeknd’s fourth album in half as many years, and as such, the final product does not present the same genre-bending seismic shift of Tesfaye’s earlier work. His benumbed worldview has been told over and over again until even his core-listeners have been desensitized to its beauty.

Maybe Tesfaye is singing too many of the same tales about drugs, sex, money and the fraudulence of fame on purpose. Just as he grows even more numb, deadened by immoralities that have become so commonplace, the audience does too. Just as Tesfaye futilely chases his career’s first virgin high, we are there, chasing with him, benumbed by the same old, now taken in ever increasing dosages.

Alice Wang is a junior in the College of Human Ecology. She can be reached at awang@cornellsun.com.