"Blinding Lights" artistically and commercially was so optimal for Abel Tesfaye that it quickly became his signature song, and was only two years old when Billboard announced that it had rocketed past Chubby Checker's "The Twist" to claim the title of all-time number one hit. For the follow-up to "Blinding Lights" parent album After Hours, Tesfaye delves deeper into the early- to mid-'80s pop aesthetic. He resurfaces with a conceptual sequel designed as a broadcast heard by a motorist stuck in a purgatorial tunnel. The primary collaborators are "Blinding Lights" co-producers Max Martin and Oscar Holter, plus fellow After Hours cohort Daniel Lopatin, whose airwaves-themed 2020 LP Magic Oneohtrix Point Never was executive produced by Tesfaye. Instead of scrambled voices like those heard on the OPN album, Dawn FM features recurrent announcements from Jim Carrey as a serene and faintly creepy character, or maybe himself, intonating end-of-life entertainment and counsel. The other unlikely appearances -- Quincy Jones with a spoken autobiographical interlude, Beach Boy Bruce Johnston somewhere in the cocksure "how it's going" outlier "Here We Go...Again" -- are ostentatious. In the main, this is a space for Tesfaye to fully indulge his frantic romantic side as his co-conspirators whip up fluorescent throwback Euro-pop with muscle and nuance. Tesfaye's almost fathomless vocal facility elevates even the most rudimentary expressions of co-dependency, despair, regret, and obsession, and he helps it all go down easier with station ID jingles and an amusingly hyped-up ad for "a compelling work of science fiction" called (the) "After Life." The set peaks early with a sequence of dejected post-disco jams that writhe, percolate, and chug. Most of these songs surpass the bulk of Daft Punk's similarly backward-gazing Random Access Memories, projecting the same lust for life with underlying existential doom as Italo disco nuggets such as Ryan Paris' "Dolce Vita." Toward the end of that first-half stretch, Tesfaye reaffirms his R&B roots and affinity for Michael Jackson with a cut built from Alicia Myers' 1981 gospel boogie classic "I Want to Thank You." After that, it slows down and stretches out a bit to varying effect, dipping into Japanese city pop for the bittersweet and remorseful "Out of Time" and edging ever so achingly toward Latin freestyle with "Don't Break My Heart." Just before Carrey's epilogue, Tesfaye and company pick up the pace with "Less Than Zero." Rather than use the title as a prompt to sink back into detailing debauchery, Tesfaye makes the song this album's "Scared to Live," a sentimental ballad that's hard to resist.
Dawn FM Review
by Andy Kellman