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Spinnaker Record Club: The Weeknd doesn’t know what to say on Beauty Behind the Madness

Spinnaker Record Club is a weekly selection of music releases designed to introduce students to sounds they may not find elsewhere. 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dqt8Z1k0oWQ]
Graphic by Rachelle Keller
Graphic by Rachel Rector

Even for those who’ve never experienced Abel Tesfaye’s work as The Weeknd (myself included before now), he is the most notorious Don Juan in contemporary music. He’s a millennial sex god operating without any pretense of caring about the women he shacks up with. In his world of hedonism and lust, of “popping pills, f–king bitches, living life so trill,” women know what they’re getting into. Perhaps this is central to his appeal: finally, an R&B singer who tells you up front he’s going to hit and quit.

But his latest, the terribly-titled Beauty Behind the Madness, throws a wrench into this simple arrangement. It’s an attempt at pop crossover, and Tesfaye can’t seem to choose which side of himself he wants to represent on the record, the lover or the womanizer. Certainly, it’s at its best when he picks one over the other, an idea manifested in its only two decent songs. “Earned It” is a lascivious ballad with an undercurrent of sexual coercion that perfectly suits Tesfaye’s womanizing persona and the film it was recorded for, none other than Fifty Shades of Grey. On the other side, “Can’t Feel My Face” is a very well-done Michael Jackson rip-off.

The rest of the album is a guessing game, with spotty production, atrocious duets from Ed Sheeran and Lana Del Rey (the female Weeknd), and lyrics as emotionally empty as all the constant sex Tesfaye claims to have on the regular. At once, he tries to sell us two personas, convincing us that “When I’m f–ked up, that’s the real me,” on “The Hills” but telling us he’ll put time in moments later. If he was honest about his intentions before, he isn’t anymore. Is the Weeknd a pop god or a sex god? Beauty Behind the Madness makes it hard to tell, mostly because it’s a mediocre record.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a7EzjJvMLKo]
Graphic by Rachelle Keller
Graphic by Rachel Rector

There have been a couple of albums this year with a sort of “throw it on after a long day” kind of vibe. Earl Sweatshirt’s latest is an excellent example, and as the title states, it’s for and by people who don’t go outside. Joining this club is the cozy new album from Micachu and the Shapes. It’s called Good Sad Happy Bad, and it sounds like you and your friends at home messing around with guitars, drum sets, drum machines and Casio keyboards of varying levels of chintz.

English singer/composer Mica Levi is no stranger to the intersection of tech and humanity in our current age of cyberpunk dystopia. Her score for last year’s instant classic arthouse sci-fi film Under the Skin made its skin-shivering violins sound like they were masochistically scraped across a circuit board. This album, with her band the Shapes, doesn’t approach that alien territory, but it does express a certain fatigue. We have the cheeky vignette reminiscent of the Velvet Underground’s “The Gift” on “Thinking It,” the looping pig squeals on “Unity,” the vacation narrative on “Sea Air,” the romantic exasperation of “Crushed,” the deflated “L.A. Poison” and what is likely a Zen koan on the final track: “It’s only suffering / that keeps my conscience clean.”

In a way, this album is about our anxious time and how we cope with it. And speaking of suffering, here’s the most oppressive facet of modern life people of the current generational crop have come to terms with: constant physical and emotional exhaustion. With many of us working dehumanizing service industry jobs to support ourselves through a school system that will very likely not provide us with decent employment after graduation, the most common response to “how are you?” is “tired.”

There is a song for this condition on the album, “Oh Baby.” It sounds like it was recorded in a sunken shipping container, its lyrics are impossible to decipher, and yet it sounds exactly the way you feel. Rarely does a song come along that holds you as tightly as this one.

Truly, Good Sad Happy Bad is the comfort album of 2015, built for people who want to get away but can’t. It may be too weird for some, but it’ll be there at the end of your awful day to say “I know.”


Other Notable Releases:

Deradoorian – The Expanding Flower Planet

Combining dozens of musical elements from around the world into a hypnotic, fleshed-out realm, the ex-Dirty Projectors member’s debut solo album puts other indie folk artists to shame. (4.5/5)

Beirut – No No No

I was ready to decry this short collection of lovely folk pop as yet another cog in the indie marketing machine, but it’s just too pretty to hate. (3.5/5)

Planet Mu Records – µ20

The legendary UK electronic label, famous for sponsoring popular and outsider genres from dubstep and grime to breakcore and footwork, is celebrating its 20th anniversary with this compilation of new music from a murderer’s row of its artists, including RP Boo, Venetian Snares, FaltyDL and of course label founder Mike Paradinas as µ-ziq. I’ve only heard disc one so far, but I can’t wait to get through the other two. (4/5)

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