I think we can all agree that the one thing that will get us through COVID-19 is synthwave. Lots and lots of synthwave. Right?
The Weeknd certainly seems to think so. I first heard “Blinding Lights” in the car driving home from Cleveland on a business day trip. I was a little on edge because of bad weather rolling in, and I wanted to make it home safely. Then, during the days in which I agonized over whether to continue with or cancel Steadfast Festival, “Blinding Lights” was continually stuck in my head. Of course, we cancelled the fest, and that day was definitely a low point in my music career.
Many songs that I become familiar with during times of high stress and trauma that are otherwise upbeat become ruined or inextricably tied to that event. But neither “Blinding Lights” nor The Weeknd’s new album, After Hours, are casualties of this effect.
The overall sound of the record is synthwave-infused R&B, a form of escapism that is all the more effective now. As I type this, I’m sitting in my office at home, virtually free from distraction, and “Faith” is wrapping up—it seems to swirl around me. By the time I get past the effortlessly cool “Blinding Lights” and into “In Your Eyes” (that sax, though!), I’m convinced that The Weeknd is going to be another catalyst to keep the synthwave movement in the mainstream; the first one being S U R V I V E, and their Stranger Things theme. The “Repeat After Me (interlude)” is a drum-machine driven bop that is probably making people everything think about purple neon and desire.
Prominent themes on this record seem to be hedonism, escapism, and vulnerability. Often, these themes intersect in poignant ways. There are points at which The Weeknd gets rather explicit in the lyricism. Depending on who you are, you’ll either find that unnecessary or that raw honesty to be admired. What I found to be the most relatable was “Escape From LA,” in which he decries the fast lifestyle of the LA culture and fame. I’ve wanted to escape my obligations and lifestyle from time to time, even though it’s what I wanted. Music drives a lot of what I do, but when I get overwhelmed the idea of completely unplugging and just living off the land in the country all of the sudden sounds very appealing. Who am I kidding, though—I can barely cook as it is!
I’ll admit that I didn’t give The Weeknd a fair chance before this record came out. My love of big hooks and synth brought me around. I’ll say it again—this sound seems to both acknowledge the rough times we’re living in and transcend them into euphoria at the same time. This is no small feat.