On The Weeknd’s first two albums of roofied R&B, House Of Balloons and Thursday, singer Abel Tesfaye documented in cold, unflinching detail how he baits his sexual conquests, then uses, humiliates, and scars them, casting them off with a simple, stinging “I warned you.” It’s in that spirit of ill intent that the final act of The Weeknd’s 2011 trilogy, Echoes Of Silence, opens with a surprise cover of “Dirty Diana,” Michael Jackson’s gloves-off evisceration of a determined groupie. The song is Jackson’s harshest, an unusually misogynistic expression of the pop star’s desire to be left alone, and in Tesfaye’s hands it’s even more malicious. Tesfaye knows there’s no pickup line more effective than “stay away,” so his “Dirty Diana” plays out as an elaborate, duplicitous seduction. Here it’s the singer laying the trap, not the groupie.
Echoes Of Silence offers a more straightforward take on contemporary R&B than its predecessors, forgoing the conspicuous indie-rock samples of House Of Balloons and tempering the stylistic drift of Thursday in favor of leaner, ever-more nightmarish slow jams. “Baby when I’m finished with you, you won’t want to go outside,” he sings on “Outside,” no longer even disguising his threats as come-ons, while synths that could have crept out of The Cure’s Pornography rumble in the distance. “Initiation” makes the implied terror of past Weeknd songs explicit, grotesquely pitch-correcting Tesfaye’s voice to match a lurching, psychotic beat that’s equal parts Timbaland and John Carpenter.
It’s Tesfaye’s total commitment to his ghastly persona that makes Echoes Of Silence so entrancingly chilling. He never winks at the listener to suggest he’s just playing a character, and never tries to redeem himself. Even when he hints at something resembling remorse on the album-closing title track, taking on a consolatory tone as he addresses a discarded lover over somber piano, his words are stern and cruel: “You knew how this would end.”