June 21, 2018
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Sound Advice: The Weeknd

By Andrew Catalina, BDN Staff

BDN staffers write about new albums from across the musical spectrum

“House of Balloons”(self-released)

It’s clear that the Internet has changed the face of music distribution; examples are so abundant and Web sensations so common, it hardly bears repeating. There may be nothing new in the story of “House of Balloons,” a nine-song R&B mix tape released without a record label’s backing, but it is presently without peer.

It’s a common theme for the album — what initially sounds run-of-the-mill is in actuality exceptional. Take singer Abel Tesfaye’s performance. In terms of content, there isn’t a lot new he has to offer. R&B motifs abound: Sex, money, drinking. Expect to hear “love you girl,” taken somewhat out of context, on more than one occasion. But where it’s customary, perhaps even expected, for R&B singers to offer tenderness in generous helping, Tesfaye is noticeably callous, his delivery more forceful than suggestive. “Trust me girl / you wanna be / high for this,” sung on the album’s opening track, doesn’t sound so much a call to pleasure as a recommendation to lose inhibition in the face of staggering anxiety, corroborated by a beat so dark and frenetic it might make Trent Reznor proud.

By the time the title track, “House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls,” is complete, Tesfaye has managed to remind us that “He’s what you want / I’m what you need,” anchored in rhyme on no fewer than a half-dozen F-bombs in the short “Glass Table Girls” segment and sung over instrumentation as comfortable on a club’s dance floor as a hip Williamsburg, Brooklyn loft. If the keyboards and vocal samples on “The Party & The After Party” sound like chopped-and-screwed Beach House, it’s because they are.

The album, then, finds a lot of its value as absurd caricature. Much like Kanye West’s exploration of the underbelly of club hip-hop and its associated glamour in “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” Tesfaye’s vision of the R&B lifestyle is so unpalatable and creepy that it’s difficult to imagine anyone aspiring to live it, and equally as difficult to turn away from it. But the compelling nature of the thematic material isn’t the only thing setting the album apart; the aurally pleasing vocal performance and instrumentation make it well worth the price of admission. Did I mention it’s available for free, legal download?

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