I don’t know why I say “we”. It’s just me. All my multiple personalities don’t really count as different people.
When I originally did a “First Impressions” segment on After Hours, I knew it was good. Even great. Some things have changed since then, some have stayed the same (see official track rankings below). My biggest takeaway is that it’s so much deeper and more nuanced of an album than I could have been expected to realize on a couple of superficial listens.
I was going to make a long intro and talk broadly about the album, but this is all that needs to be said: After Hours is a goddamn masterpiece. I already thought it was great, but after dissecting the lyrics and piecing together the story it tells, I’m ready to praise it as the work of art it is. This album is more than just a technical and musical masterpiece, which you can easily tell it is from one listen; it’s one of brilliant and beautiful storytelling, stitched together so masterfully into a cohesive, but discrete, narrative. I’m even more angry now that The Weeknd was snubbed at the Grammy’s. ZERO nominations for this dude? GTFOH. More like the Shammy’s.
One other note: because of the awkward nature of referring to him as “The Weeknd” (or, worse, just “Weeknd”), I call him Abel a lot in this post, which is his real name.
Alright, the heart and soul of this review and this segment is track rankings–so let’s get to them!
F Tier – The F Were You Thinking?
D-Tier – D stands for Did You Even Try?
13. Save Your Tears – Yes, this has a cool 80s vibe to it, but so does half the album. This is the only case of a song truly revealing how awful it is over the course of researching and listening for this album review. I originally had it in C-Tier, but I am so fucking sick of it, especially since it’s come out as a single now.
It’s my least favorite song because it’s likely about Abel’s longtime on-again-off-again ex, Bella Hadid, but I don’t know why she would need to “save her tears for another day”, when the WHOLE SONG is about him feeling sad because she’s ignoring him at the club. The chorus alludes to getting back together and that’s why she should save her tears. But he broke her heart, and even admits it in the song. Why should she “love you for a second time”? It’s just a selfish song. I guess I’ve been there myself, but even with that understanding in mind, I can’t really get behind anything about this contrived, ugly song, except the synth bassline.
C-Tier – Songs that “See Tears” Because They Aren’t Better
12. Hardest To Love – While I’ve always thought it was off-putting how this song pairs lyrics about being a terrible boyfriend with a sick beat, that’s just The Weeknd Special ’round here. The song is more about how he can’t believe she (probably Bella) still wants to be together after all they’ve been through. I can’t believe it either. He’s clearly hurt her a lot, by his own admission, and even he can’t understand why she still trusts him and wants to take him back.
All of that being said, I like “Hardest to Love” quite a bit more than “Save Your Tears”. The production team somehow pulls off mixing 80s keyboard and electronica, borderline dubstep, beats. This is a small detail, but I like the voice distortion they do in the second verse. It could be for narrative reasons, like emphasizing that he’s full of shit. But even if it’s not, I like it anyway for breaking up the monotony. I also like the outro that fades perfectly into “Scared to Live”. I’m a slut for great song-to-song transitions you can only get from listening to the album in order. More on that later.
11. Snowchild – This one has actually grown on me quite a lot. From least favorite to 11 isn’t much of a bump, but my mentality toward it has changed more than that leap would suggest. I do really like the mood, the melody, and the theme. The main problem I had with it upon first listen is the same problem I have now: I just cannot stand the barrage of wordplay and puns: “Walking in the snow before I ever made my wrist freeze/I was blowing smoke, had me dizzy like Gillespie.”
This couplet comes early in the song but is indicative of the whole problem. First of all, try harder. This sounds like a first draft. Second of all, less is more; there are far too many “ayyy, check out this cool reference” double entendre. Third, there is a way to make slick rhymes and turns of phrases on a reflective, nostalgic song, but this ain’t it. You know what song of his did this well? “The Morning”, from his compilation of remastered mixtapes, Trilogy. These are basically cousin songs, born 9 years apart.
This part is my favorite though, both musically and lyrically:
20 mil mansion never lived in it, zero edge pool never dipped in it
Super star neighbor in my business, paparazzi trying to catch me slippin’
Goin’ on tour is my vacation
Every month, another accusation
Only thing I’m phobic of is failing
I was never blessed with any patience
It’s also a really nice transition to “Escape from LA” where he wants to escape both memories of his ex and the general LA lifestyle. He ends by repeating that he’s “leaving, leaving into the night”. Both are really nice parts of the song that I wish were more front and center, instead of the goofy wordplay.
B-Tier – Songs That Are Good
10. Scared to Live – We’ve reached the 80s ballad portion of the album. I can totally see awkward middle schoolers dancing to this at prom. The main melody on keyboard reminds me of the intro to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy”, just a little bit. Any connection to Prince is a positive for me.
At first, I thought this was just a filler song of sorts, until I delved into the lyrics and the connection to Abel’s ex-girlfriend. The whole story is about him admitting, “I’m the reason you forgot to love”, but “don’t be scared to live again.” It’s kind of an olive branch, wishing her well and hoping she can recover and move on. It’s a glimpse at a more mature, more emotionally stable version of Abel. Don’t get used to it.
9. In Your Eyes – And here I thought Abel left behind his MJ impression. I’m a huge fan of the King of Pop, but we don’t need another “I Feel It Coming”, where he clearly just impersonates Michael Jackson the whole time. Thankfully, “In Your Eyes” has a much more toned down MJ influence. The 80s, however, are very strong with this track–serving up a catchy beat, beautiful synth bassline, and a little bit of sax at the end. It’s a perfectly good song that’s easy to listen to without much scrutiny. Therefore, I won’t give it any.
8. Heartless – Alright, I’m rewriting this entry entirely AND bumping it to B-Tier. This is why:
I lost my heart and my mind
I try to always do right
I thought I lost you this time
You just came back in my life
You never gave up on me
I’ll never know what you see
I don’t do well when alone
You hear it clear in my tone
Why would this bump the song up the rankings? These aren’t the best lyrics ever, or anything. No, they’re not. But, they are a mirror to the bridge from “Faith”, the song that comes after “Heartless”. It’s very similar–like intentionally similar–in melody, and delivery to the one on “Faith”. When I recognized this, embarrassingly far into my listening and writing for this album review, I stopped cold. I had already recognized the parallels in both songs talking about “being a better man” and going “back to my ways”. But the bridge similarities gave me chills. I’m a big fan of sister song synergy (see “Cabaret”/”TKO”).
This song has taken awhile to climb into my good graces, starting in C-Tier, at number 11. In fact, since I’ve heard the single, I’ve never really given this song a full chance, I guess. Why? Because I’m heartless.
No, really, though. I’ve always thought this song was trying a little too hard to be something it’s not. The production and beat are practically begging to be a hardass rap song, but Abel is no hardass and certainly no rapper. I’m just not buying it, even though the song tells me how heartless he is, numerous times. Speaking of the title, I always thought “heartless” was a pretty poor word to describe what he’s doing in the song: getting laid, driving expensive cars, doing drugs. Those things do not make you heartless.
There could be many reasons why they’re making this (tenuous) connection. Like, he’ll never be able to love and care for someone because he’s too busy living that crazy, rich bachelor life. I guess “heartless” is a pithier way to get there. It could also be about doing all those things in response to your ex wanting to get back together, which would definitely be a heartless thing to do to someone who loves you. And a confusing thing to do, since half the album is him obsessing over her and missing her, but hey, he’s human–humans have their ups and downs. Maybe he’s heartless because he doesn’t care who he steps on or who he hurts while he’s partying and living it up? I don’t know. But when you have three different explanations, it’s probably because none of them are good enough on their own.
In spite of ALL of that nonsense, I bumped this song up to number 8 because first of all, have you heard that got dang beat? It really does forgive a lot of flaws. Second, once I made that mental leap for WHY he’s heartless (pick a reason; any reason), I started to sort of get behind the narrative a little. Sure, Abel isn’t a hardass rapper, but I don’t for one second think he’s making up any of this. I do believe he’s trying to have the time of his life in Vegas, covering up the pain, pretending he doesn’t care. He’s trying to do all of this and brag about it, when really he’s inflicting more pain on himself. If you don’t believe that, listen to “Faith”, which is basically the comedown of “Heartless”. Hell, listen to the bridge of THIS song.
I’m all about narrative–and the beat. That helped significantly.
A-Tier – Songs That Are Great
7. Alone Again – As the album opener, this track’s job is to set the tone for the whole experience. It’s not going to be your go-to song for anything, with no discernable beat or riff to dance to, but it’s stylistic, full of ethereal sounds, and beautiful synthesizers.
The reason it’s in the Great Tier is because of its incredible production, especially the transition from the drawn-out synth note in the bridge to Abel’s autotuned vocals in the latter half of the track. It’s a dreamy, hazy bit that holds your hand gently, at first but slowly becomes more ominous. The whole mood of the song slowly changes here. Now, you’re in a different song. He repeats a lot of previous lyrics with this heavy auto tune, but now they feel more detached and surreal. It’s not a detail that will jump out at you as being spectacular, at first, but it’s so well-executed. The album is full of stuff like this.
The chorus says: “I don’t know if I can be alone again”. That line right there says a lot. Whether you’ve been in a codependent relationship yourself, been obsessed with someone who broke your heart, or just miss being in a relationship, this line can work on many levels. He says it a lot, too, which reinforces its importance. This song could have had nonsense lyrics and it would still be great, but it still has a plot to it, and I love that.
6. Escape from LA – This is classic Weeknd-fare–pulling back on the synthpop/80s-retro drip, in favor of a more moody and dreamy R&B style. There are a lot of things that work really well here: the lyrics, the vulnerability in Abel’s voice, the mood. He makes me feel exactly what he’s going through–dejection, melancholy, missing his ex, memories that now feel sad, hating the LA scene. I also really enjoyed this reference: “Keanu Reeves, the way a n**** Speed/Diamond cross hangin’ off of me; I’m fighting for my soul, Constantine”. That is how you do wordplay and pop culture references in a reflective song.
Another reason I love this song is its three distinct phases of storytelling and musical composition. I love how verses 1 and 2 are different stylistically, but do their part to move the story along and add a new texture to the song. The bridge completely changes direction, in favor of a vibe-y, dreamy number that leads us into Abel reminiscing about a visit from his ex, while he was in the studio recording. I feel every bit of this song, especially the bridge. The Weeknd’s production team and Abel’s vocals know how to sell a song and its story.
S-Tier – Songs That Are Flawless
5. Until I Bleed Out – This is such a good song in theme, lyrics, and execution. I originally had it as high as number 1, but had to drop it because it’s such an intense and heavy song.
There’s no quirkiness, i.e. “Hardest to Love”, to hide behind. There’s no bitterness or missing her like in “After Hours”. There’s not even the glimpse of acceptance and well-wishes from “Scared to Live”. It’s just pure pain and agony. “I don’t even want to get high anymore,” “I want to cut you out of my dreams.” I feel nothing but pain. There’s nothing I can do. I messed this up. I’m the worst. It’s a lot to deal with emotionally and doesn’t make for the best standalone listen. It’s at it’s best as the album closer–the story ender–with all the other songs before it to give it the most context and significance. It’s a fantastic song in concept and execution.
4. Too Late – There is something about the auto tuned vocals, crisp percussion, and sugary 80s pop vibe that hits that special spot in my brain. It’s almost like cheating. When that part of my brain gets tickled, it overrides all logic and reason. I automatically shot “Too Late” to S-Tier without any contemplation or debate from myself when I started putting the songs into categories. The problem with that is all the other songs on here received scrutiny, critical thinking, analysis. I don’t have anything else good or bad to say about this. It’s a fun track. I love it. I wouldn’t change anything. I wouldn’t make it “deeper”. I wouldn’t write it any better. I think it’s perfect as is. I don’t have 3 paragraphs to write about it, and that’s okay.
3. After Hours – I’m going to use this opening paragraph to talk about the Interlude right before “After Hours”. “Repeat After Me” is a Bruno Mars-style track that’s pretty clearly about Abel desperately trying to convince a woman into believing she’s still in love with him, even though she’s with someone else. I’m not the only one who interpreted it that way. I didn’t give it an official ranking because it’s hard to judge this song too much on its own merit, as an interlude. I did want to talk mention it though because it is good and helps the narrative.
Now, let’s talk about “After Hours”, which is both a banger and a heartfelt song about pain and affliction. So, basically, “The Weeknd Special” strikes again. This track has risen up the ranks over the course of my writing this article, where it originally started in A-Tier. There’s a lot going on lyrically, from dealing with his sadness and pain about hurting someone (my money is on Bella, even though this interpretation thinks parts of it are about Selena Gomez), to missing her, to apologizing for his behavior. It sounds bitter and remorseful in the same chorus: “Baby, where are you now when I need you most?” and “Sorry that I broke your heart”. This stream-of-conscious in the lyrics shows the cycle of emotions we go through during painful breakups.
It starts out slow and plodding, building up to a beat drop that comes a robust 2 minutes in. Before that moment, we are treated to a lot of expositional foreplay: haunting, echoing vocals; a lyrical foundation to help paint a vivid scene; and sound effects. The inclusion of crackling film and clinking glass suggests two things to me: a) analog recording, b) smoking crack. But since my knowledge of both is limited, I’ll just say I like the aesthetic choice, regardless of their meaning. (Also, side note, it’s way more likely that it’s just alcohol bottles clinking, by the way. But you never know with Abel). This is a really well-crafted song from a musical standpoint. Every beat, every reverb, every second feels intentional, yet effortlessly executed. I love the way this song flows together and creates a big, tragic, touching story in one song. It essentially sums up the entire story and themes of the album.
2. Faith – I called this my favorite song on First Impressions because of the way it stood out from the other songs in both tone and style. Now I’m finding even more reasons to love it. I already talked in a previous entry about its synergy with “Heartless” and how this is the aftermath of everything that happened in that song.
Besides all the gripes I have about “Heartless”, there’s another reason that “Faith” is so much higher in the rankings. It’s the exact same concept, but executed miles better. He’s still doing drugs, he’s still numbing the pain, he’s still a “low life”. But I don’t get this false bravado from it. He’s not hiding anything. He’s self-destructive, past the point where he should stop. It’s not fun anymore. It’s not glamorous. It’s just pain. He still can’t stop. He compulsively
What always captured my attention about this song was the bridge that begins with this line: “I lost my faith; I’m losing my religion every day”. That’s the same bridge that “Heartless” mimics. The bridge on “Faith” is a great contrast to the rest of the song’s musical composition. The other part that bumped this so high was the dreamy, ethereal part toward the end where it sounds like he’s singing through a drug-induced haze, lying on the sidewalk, waiting for the police to arrive. All his bad behavior leads to him being in “the back of a flashing car”, facing the consequences of his actions. All his antics are catching up to him.
It’s an absolutely perfect segue into “Blinding Lights”, especially with this lyric: “With the city shining on my face; The lights are blinding me again.” A song that clearly conjures up images of being obsessed with your ex, while you’re on a bender in Las Vegas, straight out of prison (I mean, clearly, right?). The same ex, who you’re so obsessed with that you say this about her on “Faith”: “if I OD, I want you to OD right beside me; I want you to follow right behind me. I want you to hold me while I’m smiling, while I’m dying”. Can I get a “YIKES” in the comments? Holy shit. That’s fucking intense. It’s a great story about a tragically co-dependent and unhealthy relationship paired with brilliant-as-always production.
1. Blinding Lights – Unclutch your pearls for a second and listen.
I really didn’t want to put this at number 1 because first of all: it’s the song that I’ve listened to the most on its own (it was my number 1 song of 2020 on Spotify — future me edit: and also 2021), so I feel it’s a biased choice. Second of all: it’s generally considered lame when you’re a fan of an artist to love a hit single of theirs, much less consider it your favorite track from an album! Gasp!
I originally had “Too Late” as number one, but it didn’t feel right, despite that it’s a fun and awesome song. “Until I Bleed Out” was number 1 at one point because of the themes and writing, but it didn’t “feel” like number 1, either. I could have even put “Faith” here and it would have hit a lot of the same points that each of these songs hit. It was my favorite on “First Impressions”, after all.
But I decided to put “Blinding Lights” as number 1 because the true mark of a favorite song is that you do want to listen to it over and over again, outside of the album. I mean, I just made that up, but I’m going with it because it does feel right in this case. Hit or not, “Blinding Lights” is my favorite. It fits perfectly within the narrative of the album, but it’s also a killer standalone song.
And sure, it’s about codependency and an unhealthy relationship, but boy, is it disguised under an unbelievably catchy beat and infectious riff! Just like how “Can’t Feel My Face” was a song about doing blow, disguised as a fun, danceable song. I really do not care. It’s fun. I need fun. I’ll listen to it a hundred more times this year. It was my feel-good song a lot of the times, and my god, do I love bopping along to it. I don’t have much to say in the way of a technical breakdown, but if I did I’d talk about the perfect riff, the god-tier percussion, the gorgeous mix of vocals seamlessly between the melody. Those things make a good song from an engineering standpoint, but my connection to it is what made it great. Perfect. Favorite.