Strap in, this is gonna be a long'un
Few artists made as much of an impression in 2011 as The Weeknd. The enigmatic, initially anonymous R&B project of 22-year-old Toronto native Abel Tesfaye. Heralded as on of the saviours of R&B alongside the likes of Frank Ocean, The Weeknd combined Tesfaye's arrestingly pure vocals with a dense, dark production and instrumentation. All contained within what some have described as a decidedly "pitchfork-ian aesthetic", which despite being one of the wankiest statements ever to put onto paper does have some legitimacy. Everything from the mystery surrounding them, to the instagram meets tumblr porn artwork gave The Weeknd an identity that set him apart from most of his comtemporaries.
The three mixtapes released in 2011 brought The Weeknd into the spotlight with the kind of immediacy and hype that's rare in a world of bandcamp and soundcloud diluting the music landscape to the point of utter obscurity, something that stands as a testament to the attention to detail that pervades The Weeknd's presentation. From the typography to the lyrical cross references throughout the mixtapes there was always a sense that The Weeknd was working toward something larger than a few collections of tracks, and here with all three re-mastered and packaged together as Trilogy, we finally have the chance to see what it is.
Far from a simple box set of previously heard material, Trilogy presents the three mixtapes as a single, mammoth album. That not only carries across a consistent style in its visuals but that contains within it a single narrative that now, when presented together is clearer than ever. A project of this size is ambitious for any artist and some of the finest artists have been brought low by the demands of the double album. But for Trilogy to not only be a triple album but one that carries within it the dreaded "concept" moniker, that hopes to carry its themes and narrative across all of the material both in the words and the music, is ballsy on a level that's practically unheard of, and The Weeknd might just have pulled it off.
Trilogy begins with House of Balloons, which introduces the world you'll be inhabiting for the next 2 and a half hours, a world of haze and smoke, a world where with enough cash you can get just about anything you want. Where drugs are easy to find and women are easy to get. And in the centre of it is The Weeknd himself, the epitome of this libertarian world where a man is defined by his desires and responsibility is a hazy morning-after problem to be ignored. Tesfaye's voice is so pure and sweet that at first it feels at odds with the oppressive instrumentation but it soon becomes clear that the beauty of the vocals are concealing the crux of Trilogy's narrative: The Weeknd (or at least the persona he's presenting) is an atrocious character. A sociopath who's more than willing to use good looks, talent, drugs, money and anything else as his disposable to get what he wants. It's a dangerous game to ask an audience to spend such a large amount of time with someone like this, but Tesfaye manages to make a character that could simply have been a caricature, if never fully sympathetic, flawed and utterly compelling.
House of Balloons begins with 'High for This': "Even though you don't know/Trust me girl you want to be high for this." Within the first moments of Trilogy, The Weeknd has distilled most of its narrative: a beautiful girl, an illicit substance, and a man ready to use both as he pleases. House of Balloons then follows The Weeknd through a binge where the club runs into the party and back to the club again, where the nights flow together into one. As befitting the title, this first act is the only point where The Weeknd's world feels appealing, this comes down to the way in which the music expertly intertwines its own unique aesthetic drawing from the hazy hip-hop of the ASAP Mob, the dark oppressive bass of modern dubstep and even manages to squeeze in samples from the likes of Beach House and Siouxsie Sioux.
Thursday treads that delicate 2nd act balance, it follows on from House's themes but something has shifted. Thursday takes the moments that filled House of Balloons and distorts them just enough to darken the tone considerably. 'Life of the Party' follows the first dizzying moments of a party girls first hit, but unlike the delicate, easing vocals of 'High for This' to comfort her, she's met with the threatening distorted riff and Tesfaye's harsh opening cry. When the track hits in earnest it's one of the most hostile musical moments of the last few years; the insistent drums and dissonant harmony undercut cut Tesfaye's manipulated vocals where he stays in his lower register, breathlessly whispering in your ear.
Thursday's centerpiece is the two-part masterpiece 'The Birds'. A chronicle of The Weeknd's attempt to warn a girl away from him, one of the first moments where we hear him acknowledge the consequence of his actions. 'Part 1' has a marching drumbeat that crystallises this characters attitude to the opposite sex, seduction is conquest, love is a war. Even in the chorus he sings: "Don't make me make you fall in love with a nigger like me." There's an aggression to his language that sounds more like a threat than a counsel. 'Part 2' opens with the sound of a woman crying, she's fallen for him and no one is surprised by what comes next.
Upon release Echoes of Silence never seemed like it was able to match up with the previous two mixtapes,but here, heard in succession it definitely holds its own. This is the moment where we enter into to the come down, it's a decidedly more somber affair, stripped of the romance of House of Balloons and much of the dark instrumentation of Thursday. Echoes... is the most straightforward of the three with most of the effects stripped away and leaving the music to stand up on the strength of Tesfaye's sensibility as a songwriter. 'Montreal' is the first moment we get a glimpse at The Weeknd in a nostalgic mood, lamenting the loss of a relationship that could have, once upon a time, been something meaningful: "you could have had it all/you could have been that lonely star/ if we just went on." Echoes of Silence is the moment where we start to see the truth in The Weeknd's character and what we see is man bitter and angry at those around him, even in 'Montreal' as far as he's concerned none of the blame lies with him. The façade has peeled away and where House of Balloons was full of assurances and quiet seduction and Thursday had menace but still a sense of pity, in Echoes of Silence we find only cruelty and contempt. This reaches its peak at the midpoint when 'X O/ The Host' moves into 'Initiation'. Trilogy's darkest and quite possibly finest moment. A deeply harrowing account as The Weeknd uses a girls desire for him to manipulate her into meeting his "boys". There's some question as exactly what 'boys' refers to but either way it's near impossible to ignore the undercurrent of sexual dominance throughout. Tesfaye's voice is pitch shifted throughout the track moving from high to low and returning to normal just in time for him to sing: baby you can have it all. But his voice shifts again as he delivers the menacing request: "There's just something that I need from you." 'Initiation' marks the moment where The Weeknd's persona cracks, the seduction and bravado truly give way to something darker. With 'Same Old Song' and 'Next' we catch a glimpse of the things that brought us to this point, stories of rejection and insecurity filled with phrases repeated from earlier moments, now taking on a new clarity. Aside from the final bonus track, Echoes of Silence provides Trilogy with its denouement; a moment that shows that for all the glamour of the night before, the joke is on The Weeknd as he and those around him are left shaken and lonely. And with that Tesfaye has taken his persona on a journey from swaggering lethario, to damaged narcissist, to violent sociopath, to real human being.
It's a habit of critics to ascribe autobiography to most popular music but that does a disservice to what a remarkable work of art The Weeknd has created here. The main issue with Trilogy is the question of the point in paying for a collected version of some music almost all of which has already been released for free. The three bonus tracks provide decent enough intermissions but don't add much overall. 'Till Dawn (Here Comes The Sun)' in particular suffers from being placed at the end. But presenting it as a single album gives us the opportunity to see the end-game The Weeknd has been working towards for the last year. It's an exhausting journey, dark and disturbing with little respite, but in the end when those last chords fade away and you're left with the echoes ringing in your ears, it's a journey that's worth taking.