Taken as mood music designed for toxic and illicit late-night situations, House of Balloons -- the debut from Toronto vocalist Abel Tesfaye, released as a free download on his Tumblr blog -- can make for absorptive listening. Joined by producers Doc McKinney and Illangelo, Zodiac, and Rainer, Tesfaye -- to lift a phrase from David Toop -- exemplifies the combination of "sugar and poison" that has powered R&B throughout its evolution. Tesfaye's voice is a gentle, bruised, and occasionally gorgeous-sounding instrument that, through sound and words, mixes based belligerence with palpable inner turmoil. "Let me see that ass, look at all this cash" and "I got my heart right here, I got my scars right here," both from "Wicked Games," sum up the angle. The unrelenting stream of dramatically delivered lyrics about getting high and laid can be draining. If Tesfaye didn’t punctuate so many thoughts with "fuck" and "motherfuckin'," or struggle with completing couplets -- as he does most glaringly with "I'm on that shit you can’t smell, baby/So put down your perfume" -- it wouldn't be a problem. Also, there are instances where it seems likely that Tesfaye does not have Urban Dictionary bookmarked, like when he says he'll "knock your boots off" (an apparent mix of knocking boots and knock your socks off) and brags that he's "always on that okey-dokey" (unless he's proud of being a gullible doormat). Still, Tesfaye and his producers are often ideal foils for one another. The numb, dragged-out melodies and ice-cold drums in "High for This," and the swaggering hook over a chiming lullaby backing in "The Party and the After Party" (one of few instances where Tesfaye views a female as more than a mere conquest) are two of several highlights. House of Balloons is no turning point in a field populated by dozens of elder space cadets and mood architects, from Massive Attack to Spacek to Sa-Ra. As a flawed first step from a young newcomer, however, it's impressive.
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AllMusic Review by Andy Kellman