House of Balloons mixtape way back in early 2011, Abel Tesfaye’s brand only taking a minor hit when his studio debut, Kiss Land, failed to impress two years later. The epic English five-piece also released an LP in 2013, and while Holy Fire received a kinder reception from critics and fans than KL, it barely made a ripple in the pond of popular music, failing to build on the break-out success of their previous record, Total Life Forever. Both artists seemed destined for fame and popularity as recently as four years ago, experienced some hiccups along the way, but are ready to get back up on the horse with a pair of albums that met the world this last friday. The lining-up of their release dates and career trajectories is odd, enticing food for thought, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg where this strange comparison is concerned.
When it comes to notoriety, there’s really no contest. Tesfaye, the man who records as The Weeknd, received a leg-up when he was shouted out by Drake, and then featured on the fellow Canadian’s finest disc to date, Take Care. He’s been plugging away at cracking into the mainstream ever since, and while his feature on Ariana Grande’s Love Me Harder represented some important steps forward, 2015 has seen the guy morph into a household name. Riding on the coattails of February’s S&M-Lite box office smash 50 Shades of Gray, Tesfaye first achieved significant airplay with Earned It, a languid, throw-back ballad tricked out with violins, cellos, and pianos, an offering more suited to a lounge singer than an R&B star. The song kicked in the door for a pair of other, more successful singles, the rising tide known simply as The Hills, and the pro-drug use anthem Can’t Feel My Face, a track that has torched the radio since it’s early summer release, proving nearly inescapable ever since. After previewing his Lana Del Rey duet Prisoner last week, we’d already heard about a third of Beauty Behind the Madness before the album even dropped, leaving the other ten tracks to fill in the gaps.
And for the most part, those songs are content to do just that. Often is aimless at best, Tesfaye’s salacious lyrics and nonchalaunt delivery mistake repetition for seduction, with some chipmonk-soul thrown in for good measure. It’s immediately followed by Acquainted, a track that somehow stretches out to a near six-minute trudge wherein the Weeknd endlessly reiterates that he’ll “be touching on your body.” That last sentence alludes to the two biggest problems that plague Beauty Behind the Madness: the one-note, exhaustively hedonistic lyrics (more on that in a minute), and the elongated runtimes of the individual songs. Only three of the numbers here clock in under the four minute mark, and it comes as no surprise that the shortest track is the only one possessing immediate Top 40 radio staying power (Can’t Feel My Face). Everything else feels stretched to the breaking point, as if Tesfaye’s producers convinced him that the only way to craft an epic was to mercilessly draw it out.
The priorities of What Went Down, the new LP by Foals, could hardly be more dissimilar. Almost 20 minutes shorter in length than BBtM, Down remains taut and tense from first note to last, a blustery storm of a record that reveals Holy Fire as an album of growing pains, rather than the failure it might have seemed at the time. Their previous offering exposed their interest in returning to the power chord-driven, distorted fret work that personified popular rock music in the 90’s, but their latest doubles down, employing volume and mania to alluring effect. This prioritization results in an album that can sometimes feel lost in time, like a fashionista breaking out the old duds after waiting only 10 years, as opposed to the seemingly requisite 20. Thankfully, guitarist/band leader Yannis Philippakis is just as adept at picking strings as he is at strumming them, creating a unique push-pull between specificity and chaos.
Lead single Mountain at My Gates is not only a great song, but also perfectly relays the dueling polarities described above. For almost three whole minutes, that slick, slippery guitar-and-drums interplay presents itself as the tune’s primary weapon, a butterfly knife that’s eventually traded in for a machine gun outtro, wherein Philippakis' desperate pleas perfectly match the crazed fuzziness playing out just below. Night Swimmers plays the same trick, remaining nimble for the majority of its runtime before being overtaken by thunderclouds in its final minute. Only the title track and Birch Tree allow themselves to drift all the way to one side or the other, WWD playing out like a second-tier Foo Fighters cut, while BT finds the band embracing dance rock to a further degree than ever before. They’re fine songs, but Foals is at their best when their duality is on full display, a fact of which they seem increasingly aware.
Maybe they should produce the next Weeknd record, because adding a little variety Tesfaye’s schtick would undoubtably be for the better. Everything on his new album feels covered in molasses; even when he essentially does a Michael Jackson track with In the Night, the instrumentals sound as if they’re plodding through a swamp. And while The Weeknd’s voice will never be less than impressive, his lyrics have become monotonous, disheartening, and, perhaps worst of all, unbelievable. In a strange way, the backgrounds here are what make Tesfaye’s words less appealing, not the syllables themselves. The title track on House of Balloons possessed real stakes and tension, What You Need sounded like the guy was on the drugs he was singing about, and The Birds Part 1 is downright desperate. While his distinct type chauvinism remains unmoved after all these years, the increased fussiness of the production no longer truly suits them; “Say it louder, say it louder,” he belts atop the soft, twinkling guitar of Shameless, “who’s gunna f*** you like me?” This arrives only a few tracks after spraying lewd comments after egomaniacal declarations all over the smooth jazz of Tell Your Friends. As an enormous fan of Yeezus (and House of Balloons, for that matter), allow me to clarify that vapid vulgarity doesn’t necessarily bother me in lyrics; nonsensically pairing it with boring, unvaried production does.
Philippakis isn’t exactly Robert Zimmerman himself either, but his shamelessly grandiose linguistic gestures are a perfect match for the shamelessly grandiose sonics produced by him and his bandmates. The guy simply can’t help himself for opining on the “new day,” a friend with “a pile of broken wishbones under (their) bed,” and, most embarrassingly, “being the only cowboy in this town.” But here’s the thing; when Philippakis boards “a redeye flight to nowhere good,” as he does on album highlight London Thunder, the song itself raises to the occasion, inflating into something both enormous and cathartic. What Went Down is not the Foals of Total Life Forever; that band was interested in echoing space, slow builds, and elating intricacy. Their newest incarnation is powered by brute force, and though I might still like the old one a tad better, the power of their latest LP is not to be denied. I almost couldn’t recommend The Weeknd track Losers highly enough, but What Went Down wins this match up by a landslide. You’ve already heard almost everything good on Beauty Behind the Madness; do yourself a favor, and spend this upcoming week with the Brits.
Beauty Behind the Madness: C-
What Went Down: A-