The Number 1 Station to Free Your Soul: Riding Through Purgatory with The Weeknd’s “Dawn FM”

Purgatory has been on my mind recently.

Can you blame me? We’re yet again in another COVID surge, full of governmental gaslighting, confusing market-driven public health guidance, all the boosters you can stand, explosive fights over masks, tests, vaccines, remote work, and remote school, a president that seems to be increasingly addled, grocery and drug store panics, hospitals filled to the brim, closing restaurants and bars, canceled events…what year is it? With exception of the vaccines, it’s like we’re still in 2020. Let’s face it, we’re all stuck, like the ever-turning record player that opens David Lynch’s film Inland Empire, which sends Nikki (an ever-upset, always-unsettled Laura Dern) into her own Hollywood, lights-camera-Axxon N. purgatory.

So what is there to do? Write bile-soaked screeds hoping that we’ll be the next David Wojnarowicz? Newsflash: we won’t be. Threaten to toss our bodies on the lawn of the White House? Sounds messy. Run away? Where?! And what’s the point?! Here, at Filthy Dreams, we’ve always believed that when the going gets tough, you throw up your hands and dance your way towards that light at the end of the tunnel, or the abyss. Whichever you prefer.

However, we’re not alone if The Weeknd’s new album Dawn FM is any indication. The album is a funky and synth-infused death drive, literally, set to an ever-present radio station “103.5 Dawn FM.”  And it’s just the album we need for the eternal return beginning of 2022!

Now, I know what you’re thinking: isn’t The Weeknd, otherwise known as Abel Tesfaye, a bit mainstream for a website devoted to the margins—or really the dumpster—of culture? He did, of course, perform at the Superbowl Halftime Show, which, with a few exceptions, is dedicated to pleasing the blandest of Middle American unseasoned tastes. Yet, how could we deny the visual splendor of The Weeknd’s creation of a chemically induced, neon, and mirrored Las Vegas hellscape in centerfield, a Fear and Loathing-style chloroform Circus Circus that I’m sure Hunter S. Thompson would approve of? Not to mention the bandaged-wrapped, battered backup dancers who shocked viewers so much that the performance left tinfoil hat-wearing, conspiracy-obsessed QAnon Americans shrieking about something called “panda eyes” on niche, anti-mask whacko Facebook groups. If Tesfaye wasn’t our hero before, he certainly was after that!

(screenshot by moi from the now-defunct “No Mask Zone” Facebook group)

However, The Weeknd has tickled my fancy for years. Part of it has to do with his mutual admiration society with our own blessed mother, Lana Del Rey. He appeared on the title track of her Lust for Life album and featured Lana in his own songs “Stargirl Interlude” and “Prisoner” on Starboy and Beauty Behind the Madness respectively, as well as covered Lana’s “Money Power Glory” in an unreleased song. And it’s no surprise. The Weeknd’s music, though sonically divergent, owing to the influence of pop royalty like Michael Jackson and Prince, as well as the futuristic Blade Runner electronica of Vangelis, covers similar conceptual territory as Lana: doomed relationships, hazy substance-driven excess, melancholic fame pitfalls, and being fucking crazy, but free. Both musicians also have a firm grasp on cinematic references that deeply infuse their aural and visual landscapes. While Lana’s cinematic territory is fairly consistently located in mid-20th century Americana nostalgia–a Lynchian torch singer, a deteriorating Hollywood Queen of Disaster, a Topanga Canyon cult member, the personification of broken Golden State promises, The Weeknd mines a more diverse range of references that are no less darkly romantic.

Take, for instance, the aesthetic of The Weeknd’s prior album After Hours, which saw the singer don a red suit, black leather gloves, and occasionally blood-soaked bandages. Though it would be much more obvious if his chosen color scheme was purple and green rather than red and black, much of The Weeknd’s mannerisms and actions in his videos and performances associated with the album’s release mirrored almost exactly Heath Ledger’s homicidal camp anarchist Joker from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Now, this wasn’t always easy to pick up on, in particular in the video for “Save Your Tears,” in which The Weeknd finally removes his bandages to reveal a pulled, lifted, and filler-plumped face that wouldn’t be out of place in Bel Air or Madonna’s Instagram. Beyond the plastic surgery shock value, though, The Weeknd gleefully and maniacally stalks his way through his performance, sipping audience members’ champagne and getting in their faces as if he’s intimidating Bruce Wayne’s fundraiser guests and eventually pointing a gun at his own head like he’s attempting to warp Harvey Dent’s mind. All that’s missing is a nurse’s uniform. Rather than simply a dorky Batman send-up, The Weeknd drops this agent of chaos into an ornately masked audience, harkening to yet another classic film, Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. More than simply a delightfully misanthropic spectacle, these cinematic references point to the thematic journey within After Hours itself, a nihilistic Station to Station descent into decadence as The Weeknd escapes LA to the bright lights of Vegas, proclaims himself as heartless, and asserts, “It’s too late to save our souls, baby.”

Though the music in Dawn FM continues and further articulates After Hours’ synth-heavy, Chromatics-reminiscent, 1980s sound, especially with the collaboration of Oneohtrix Point Never on production, the album presents quite a striking narrative shift. If After Hours is a tumbling fall and eventual embrace of nothingness, as he repeats at the end of the final song, “Until I Bleed Out,” “I keep telling myself I don’t need it anymore,” Dawn FM is a joyride through the void with an eye trained towards transcendence, or at least, self-acceptance, trading Vegas excess for a chrome netherworld. Like After Hours, Dawn FM begins with The Weeknd describing his solitude. This time, though, he meanders unaccompanied through death or limbo (“This part I do alone. I’ll take my lead, I’ll take my lead on this road”). However, this solo trip soon changes as the soothing voice of a radio DJ breaks in, announcing, “You’ve been in the dark for way too long. It’s time to walk into the light and accept your fate with open arms. Scared? Don’t worry. We’ll be there to hold your hand and guide you through this painless transition.”

The radio host of “the #1 station to free your soul” 103.5 Dawn FM, voiced unexpectedly by actor, bad anti-Trump art artist, and The Weeknd’s neighbor Jim Carrey, crops up throughout the album, at the end of songs and with his own spoken-word track, “Phantom Regret by Jim.” These radio interludes could be disruptive or annoying—an immediate skip track—but they’re not, done so expertly that it lends an engagingly unified vision to the album. We’ll let Tesfaye explain, as he did to Billboard Magazine: “Picture the album being like the listener is dead. And they’re stuck in this purgatory state, which I always imagined would be like being stuck in traffic waiting to reach the light at the end of the tunnel. And while you’re stuck in traffic, they got a radio station playing in the car, with the radio host guiding you to the light and helping you transition to the other side. So it could be celebratory, could feel bleak, however you want to make it feel, but that’s what The Dawn is for me.”

So, is it celebratory or bleak? Both. Just take the second song “Gasoline.” It’s not every pop album that includes the singer describing themselves as nihilists in a faux British accent, affecting an Ian Curtis monotone, while considering the apocalypse (“It’s 5 AM, I’m nihilist. I know there’s nothing after this. Obsessing over aftermaths, apocalypse, and hopelessness”). If that weren’t enough, he, then, delves into a romantic chorus in his typical light tone about setting his body on fire! Really. After crooning a quintessential Weeknd line, “I know you won’t let me OD,” he offers, “And if I finally die in peace, just wrap this body in these sheets and pour out the gasoline. It don’t mean much to me.” That’s my kind of love song! Though full of unsettling imagery, “Gasoline” is also incredibly catchy and danceable. So much so that if you weren’t paying attention to the lyrics, you’d be too busy bopping to the beat to notice it’s about burning corpses!

Like “Gasoline,” many of the songs on Dawn FM are perfect for spinning into oblivion and almost dying at the discotheque, as articulated on “Don’t Break My Heart.” Particularly the procession of songs from “Gasoline” to the Off the Wall-esque “Sacrifice” exude the feeling that this purgatory The Weeknd is leading us through is a perpetual escapist dance party. As he sings on “How Do I Make You Love Me?” “Release yourself to escape reality.” Yet, this joyous limbo is quickly shattered by “A Tale by Quincy,” in which legendary producer Quincy Jones recounts how his struggles in relationships and raising children were affected by the trauma in his own upbringing. This includes a jarring explanation of his mother’s diagnosis with Dementia praecox and institutionalization. He recalls, “I will never forget watching my mother get put into a straightjacket and taken out of my home when I was only seven years old.” That certainly pumps the brakes on the party mood with considerations of generational trauma and dementia! As Jones says, “Looking back is a bitch, isn’t it?”

This isn’t the only time dementia is referenced or at least hinted at on the album, including on the radio host outro of the ominous “Out of Time.” He announces, “Soon you’ll be healed, forgiven, and refreshed. Free from all trauma, pain, guilt, and shame. You may even forget your own name.” Combined with The Weeknd’s artificially elderly face on the album’s cover, there’s certainly something to be said for the theme of aging in this plod towards death or heaven on the album. (My cousin Cara Dzuricky, whose art has appeared occasionally on this website, has pointed out a few resonances with The Caretaker’s over six-hour Everywhere at the End of Time, which attempts to score the experience of disintegration into dementia, for those who want to take a deep sonic dive into the mind unraveling. I would not be surprised if that’s a musical rabbit hole that Abel has traveled down too).

While a few songs could probably have been left out, namely the naff “I Heard You’re Married” with Lil Wayne, Dawn FM is a deeply satisfying listen, presenting a cohesive vision of this purgatory ride through to the wistful “Less Than Zero” and the last Dr. Seuss-esque spoken word “Phantom Regret by Jim.” It should be noted that The Weeknd is not the only musical artist to recently bring listeners through dystopian limbo. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s album Carnage, released last year, echoes The Weeknd’s apocalyptic drive to the abyss, with surrealistic imagery appearing and disappearing on the side of the road. In particular, the song “Old Time” presents an interesting juxtaposition with Dawn FM as Nick describes a trip down a lost highway: “Wide black trees and a field of frost. Birds fly low and you and me and the car are lost.” Similar to “Old Time,” Dawn FM also expresses the wholly familiar feeling that we “took a wrong turn somewhere” as “everyone’s dreams have died.”

Like Carnage, Dawn FM also gestures towards redemption. On Carnage, this takes the form of the repeated refrain of “there is a kingdom in the sky”; on Dawn FM, it’s “the blissful embrace of that little light you see in the distance.” This light also reminds me of yet another surrealistic portrayal of purgatory: David Lynch’s Inland Empire. Though it’s near impossible to describe any semblance of a plot in Inland Empire or even distinct scenes, the film is a hellish breakdown of Laura Dern’s Nikki’s reality, including her own subjecthood with frequent moments where Nikki glimpses herself from across the street or in another part of a room. Similarly, the visuals of Dawn FM, such as the music video for “Gasoline,” feature Abel confronted with the older version of himself as seen on the album cover (and eventually beating the absolute shit out of this elderly self).

Lost Girl sees the light in Inland Empire

More than just shaky subjecthood, Inland Empire also represents purgatory, particularly with the figure of the Lost Girl (Karolina Gruszka), a mysterious presence who mostly sits in a hotel room and watches television while bawling her eyes out. Like being stuck in traffic forever, this feels like a very relatable iteration of purgatory. At the end of the film, set to Chrysta Bell’s “Polish Poem,” the Lost Girl’s door opens as if a spell has been broken, bathing her in light as she’s embraced by Nikki and eventually, leaves the hotel room to be reunited with her family. Heaven, or paradise, on Dawn FM turns out to be surprisingly simple too. As Jim Carrey recites in “Phantom Regret by Jim,” “Heaven’s not that, it’s this. It’s the depth of this moment…In other words, you gotta be Heaven to see Heaven.”

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