Though Echoes of Silence leaked just in time to qualify as a Christmas gift to the Weeknd’s already sizeable fanbase, it sounds and feels more like something left over from a particularly creepy Halloween party. Up to this point, Abel Tesfaye and his collaborators have worn their black hearts on their sleeves (the title track from House of Balloons sampled Siouxsie and the Banshees, while Thursday’s spooky sonics channeled downtempo, industrial, and trip-hop), but for the final act in their trilogy, they let their gothic fixations run amok, trading in the purgatorial abstraction of the limbo-like Thursday for something altogether more hellish. “Don’t you pretend you didn’t know how all of this would end up,” Tesfaye sings on the closing track, and he has a point. This is what he’s been promising all along: a chance to see the underbelly of nightlife, stripped of its glamour and exposed as a cycle of addiction and exploitation.
Even so, it’s impressive how naturally the Weeknd has enacted the progression from House of Balloons’s lush, club-ready pop to the disorienting noise of tracks like “The Fall” and “Initiation.” Much of that owes to the way producer Illangelo uses churning hip-hop beats to divide time into odd signatures, slicing each song into asymmetrical units with unpredictable bursts of distorted percussion. Though there’s a lot of territory covered on Echoes of Silence, it could be described as the Weeknd’s hip-hop album to House of Balloons’s R&B and Thursday’s electronica. It’s just that Tesfaye’s interpretation of hip-hop is even darker and more idiosyncratic than his version of the other two styles.
Tesfaye’s clearly preoccupied with the images of exaggerated masculinity and sexual aggression that dominate so much of rap music (what we fans often refer to, somewhat blithely, as swagger), and refracted through his twisted mirrors they are more grotesque than entertaining. “XO/The Host,” for example, begins with Tesfaye imitating any number of club rappers, shouting out name-brand liquors and enticing guests with blunts and pills. So far, so T-Pain. Tesfaye even gets to take home the girl at the end of the song, but it turns out she’s only going with him because she’s on the outs with her mom and her roommate and because the group she came to the party with left without her. So as the song ends, Tesfaye makes her a deal: “You said you want my heart/Well, baby, you can have it all/There’s just something I need from you/Is to meet my boys.” That ambiguous line becomes the main hook in “Initiation,” a dizzying collage of breakbeats and demonic, pitch-shifted vocals that describes, in no shortage of detail, what that condition entails. The song is ultimately an ugly flip of “The Party & the After Party” from House of Balloons, describing a similar scene but with the questions of consent that tune left open given rather clear and disturbing answers.
Not all of Echoes of Silence is so dire, which is fortunate, since an album consisting only of tracks like “Initiation” would be incredibly difficult to listen to. Easier on the ears (and conscience) are “Montreal,” a cavernous midtempo track about loneliness that capitalizes on some eerie harmonies and delivers the album’s biggest hooks, and the title track, a warped piano ballad that brings the album to a close by leaving Tesfaye to plead, “Don’t you leave my little life.” Outside of those two numbers, though, Echoes of Silence just isn’t the songwriting showcase that House of Balloons was, and while its bag of production tricks is considerable, there’s nothing as stately or hypnotic as Thursday’s “Gone.” It’s also easy to catch Tesfaye repeating runs and melodic phrases, not to mention a number of lyrics, from earlier albums, a tactic which can be partially explained by his narrative ambitions, but which nonetheless grows tiring. World-building exercise or not, there’s only so many times you can hear a singer describe the ritual of mixing codeine and soda in a Styrofoam cup (Drake shares the same obsession) before you start to wonder if there’s literally anything else to do in Canada.
Disappointing as Echoes of Silence may be as a collection of songs, it nonetheless serves its purpose in giving the Weeknd’s triptych a suitably grim finale, and pushing the most extreme aspects of Tesfaye’s sound about as far as it can go. It also leaves the Weeknd with a good deal of flexibility as to what comes next: Having expelled his demons, he could go full circle and return to a more pop-friendly sound in time for the inevitable major label debut, or he could continue to forge ahead into more experimental territory. I suspect Tesfaye has at least some interest in a mainstream career, and not just because of his cameos on Drake’s blockbuster Take Care, but rather because of his decision to open Echoes of Silence with a twisted—but vocally spot-on—rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana.” The King of Pop’s relationship with sex, drugs, and self-esteem was no less tragic than that of Tesfaye’s characters, and so it could be that the pop star’s world becomes the subject of the Weeknd’s next torrid exposé.