Kiss Land – The Weeknd goes global. (Music Review)

The cover of Kiss Land says it all. Abel Tesfaye, aka Weeknd looking down his nose at the camera with a stare unconvinced by his own seriousness. I was a fan of the first three albums; House of Balloons scared the shit out of me (initially), Thursday really took the subversion to a whole new level (I still love that album and think that is when he did what he does at his best) and by Echoes of Silence I could feel him slipping away from the music that backed up the lyric. Listeners are not all angry teen boys trying to think of ways to piss their mothers off – some of us are female or men in stable relationships with women or even men who don’t need to hate on women in order to be men. If the misogyny thing is going to happen, it needs to be ironic, subversive or emblematic, not just brattish. There needs to be a strong sound of soft touch revolution and this is where the music posits against the lyric to create a sound that includes its own conflict. It’s easy to define all this after listening to the eerie beauty of the first three albums – don’t expect me to produce those sorts of formula PRIOR to an act existing as identifier, but that is why we all thought Abel Tesfaye was so brilliant. He’d come up with something relatively unique that spoke so clearly and so well.

To his credit, he can hold on to that rapid-heart-beat fear factor well, and he does claim this is the point of he music (I read that somewhere) to add a Cronenberg-esque discomfort to a certain kind of genre. The problem with Kiss Land is he now sounds like a one-trick-pony and that’s a little heartbreaking for those of us who listened so devotedly in the early days. There’s also that awkward issue of his awareness of his own genius, coming through in the reduction in substance that Kiss Land thinks is unnecessary. Tesafaye was so disaffected and miserable about his meaningless sex and drug use, to extend that now to fame and fortune seems to misunderstand what we all responded to in the music, and it gives him a brainier-than-thou message where he just used to be holier-than-though.  I have said one of the problems with Tesfaye is that his lyric is so ‘naughty’ that it becomes puritanical – a puritanism that borders on preachy – with all his “see?  It might turn you on now, but really its very naughty and doesn’t make you happy”. That’s now converted to “you think fame is good?  Well, I’m still fucked up, so you see? It’s not” which leaves us much colder than the cheeky garage-sex stuff  (excuse my use of the g word in this context). Part of what made Thursday so exciting was that the guy might even have been a virgin, but that fascination is lost because he’s a big shot now. I’m not accusing him of success (heaven forbid) I’m just suggesting Kiss Land is evidence the aesthetic didn’t translate.

Part of the thrill of the earlier albums was the subversion of the disturbing lyric.  There is nothing on Kiss Land like ‘Thursday’, the album Thursday‘s title track, even though almost all of Kiss Land seems to be reaching for it. For starters bringing the lyric to the foreground just turns it nasty – and not in a cool way. The lyric has lost its subtlety as well – compare ‘Glass Table Girls’ with ‘Kiss Land’, the title track of the new album. I’ve read a lot of reviews that dismiss Kiss Land as a poor Jackson homage  circa Bad era, and I reluctantly (because I really like this artist) agree. Even the atmospherics are weakened (pun intended) by the choice of ambient noise; the screams in ‘Kiss Land’ are part of what anchors the album in that MJ problematic. I still got my little heart rush, but it never converted to the petit mort of the first three albums.

‘You Belong to the World’ comes across as a blatant claim on main stream R and B fans despite its Portishead pump, and who knows, that might be what it is – which is fine.  Many fine artists have left their room to make the journey to the other side of the world only to be told they are the world and then fell for it. That’s cool, and simplifying the music (and doing a hot-to-trot video) for the sake of a larger audience may even be the intention. Kiss Land is definitely an easier listen and the narcissistic joylessness appeals to a far broader youth culture than the early genre-mind-fucking does. A couple of tracks hold a distant memory of the (deep sigh) early days – ‘Wanderlust’ has a disconcerting cheer to it, and the Drake love continues with some interesting sounds on ‘Live For’, but I have to say for the most part I found the album just blended into a bit of soporific journey into the nowhere that The Weeknd claims to be.

But I swear that place used to be better.