INDIO, CA - APRIL 15: The Weeknd (aka Abel Tesfaye) performs during Day 3… (Frazer Harrison / Getty…)
2.5 out of 4
When the Weeknd first crept up a couple years ago, the group, which soon would consist only of Abel Tesfaye, chose the route of enigmatic Internet mystique. Tesfaye hid his face and didn’t talk much. He didn’t really have to—between three popular mixtapes and a Drake co-sign, the hype took care of itself, though he remained shrouded.
His music—lurchy R&B that lent itself better to leaned-out night moves than any real kind of dancing—was just as uneasy, with haunting lo-fi production and vocals. On “Kiss Land,” his debut album, he pretty much ditches that approach.
Tesfaye’s face smirks across the cover, devoid of any of the insecurities that made him a coked-out everyman during the “House of Balloons” trilogy. “I chose the life,” he sings on “Adaptation,” measuring the change between then and now, when his hookups are a foregone conclusion and he’s not stuck in Toronto.
Like the neon colors and curves of his new Harajuku visuals, he’s also amped up the fidelity. Some of it almost sounds TOO crisp, like the industrial noise on “Belong to the World” or the thousands of echoes attached to his vocals, which have moved from a shaky falsetto to a whiny flail. He’s also adopted a bit of an MJ-esque shimmy to his cadence on songs like “Wanderlust,” a gem of an ’80s reincarnate with a shiny chorus and dance rhythms.
Mostly, though, he meanders over sprawling soundscapes that touch on everything from trip-hop to ambience, but never blossom into anything particularly arresting. His songwriting sounds bored at times, though Tesfaye’s work on most of the hooks still is on point.
That’s not enough to make “Kiss Land” inviting. If this is the result of Tesfaye exposed, maybe he should consider crawling back in the shadows a bit.
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In concert: Oct. 13 and 14 at The Chicago Theatre