The twinkly keys of “Alone Again” that open After Hours, for me, is an instrumental snippet that could sum up The Weeknd’s entire discography: though pleasant to the ear, there’s an eerie quality to it, something darker lurking beneath the surface. The heaviness of The Weeknd’s vocals set in over the synthesizers, crooning about substance abuse and hard times. I had to wonder if this was about to be just another typical The Weeknd album: darkly danceable, dread-drenched club music to drink away hard times to.
After Hours, as a whole, is almost typical The Weeknd, but not quite; instead, it’s amplified. After Hours elevates itself in its cohesion, setting itself apart from his other work through the sonic narrative that weaves each song into the next. The ever-present starlit synthesizers that uplift each song are cinematic; the fluttering keys are devilishly kinetic.
“Faith”, a standout track that appears towards the end of the album after a brief stretch of moody, breathy songs, is the biggest showcase of the album’s production. The Weeknd’s vocals are manipulated to match the futuristic synths the song is layered with. “Faith” overwhelms and encapsulates the listener, clenching them deep within the jaws of The Weeknd’s hedonistic self-destruction and pushing them into a position to feel as he feels. Quivering synths and pulsing bass contrasted with The Weeknd’s seraphic vocals offer the sonic equivalent to an internal battle before his voice becomes one with the synths, a police siren layered over top for added effect.
“In Your Eyes” flips the futuristic switch back and puts us in an ‘80s-inspired place, his voice effortlessly bouncing over top of a jovial beat. It’s a true balance of dark and light, the euphoric beat being a blissful cover for gloom: “you always try to hide the pain, you always know just what to say, I always look the other way, I’m blind,” he sings. “In your eyes, I know it hurts to smile but you try to.” The song ascends into a jumping saxophone outro, leaving the listener to ponder over the song’s vulnerability if they bother to look past the danceable beat for it.
The synths paired with the pulsating bass that lies at the heart of many songs on After Hours make the album feel purposely unsteady, the musical equivalent to the lyrical content the album is built upon. After Hours sees a clear, complete vision musically and lyrically.
There isn’t much to dance about on this album, though; After Hours is pure melancholy, reflected in the instrumentation as well. Despite their innovative nature, the songs sound airy enough to be radio-ready, but After Hours broods directly on the line between commerciality and darkness. No features on the album was a bold choice, but only leaves room for self-reflection.
The visionary production that characterizes After Hours is worthy of a Safdie brothers film. The lyrics almost match up, but The Weeknd drops the callousness and cruelty of his usual lyrical person and goes full sadboy. A tinge of guilt leaks through the sorrow; his angelic voice hovers through his despondency with a sad assurance.
On “After Hours”, he lowers the mask completely: “different girls on the floor, distracting my thoughts of you / I turned into the man I used to be.” This being the title track, we see the album’s narrative built around it: the growth within After Hours is born out of contemplation, of the truth beneath the fog. After Hours is gloomy and gorgeous, sadness just barely veiled in springy synths. It’s The Weeknd at both his most vulnerable and most powerful.