Abel Tesfaye had a busy 2011, self-releasing three free albums and confirming himself as one of the most arresting voices in contemporary R&B. It was clearly a year worth celebrating for the Toronto mystery man, one he has chosen to honour with the mammoth Trilogy compilation. Comprised of House of Balloons, Thursday and last December’s Echoes of Silence, his major label debut sees Tesfaye taking stock after a period of relentless productivity — and perfunctory as this collection may be, The Weeknd’s brief discography is certainly worthy of further listening and reassessment.
Unifying the three records provides clarity, assembling the narrative arcs of each into a linear whole, although they all focus on the Weeknd’s brand of gaudy indulgence to a certain degree. Even if Tesfaye is slumped in a paralysing haze of easy drugs and meaningless sex for the most part; on occasion, he comes to realise the damage he is causing to himself and others who are caught up in such excess.
The singer’s intentions are rarely more than sordid and, sparing moments of emotional honesty, are often qualified with guarantees of his sexual prowess, but his truly stunning voice – in combination with the devil-on-the-shoulder charisma he carries himself with – allows Trilogy to glisten through the grime. ‘Lonely Star’, ‘House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls’ and the Beach House-sampling ‘The Party & The Afterparty’, all play out within the first third and see Tesfaye at his most careless and leering but with fine melodic hooks and a precise, grinding coalition of synths, drum machines and bass to back him up.
Naturally, at 30 tracks, the quality of Trilogy wavers at times and the Weeknd occasionally threatens to become a parody of himself. ‘Life of the Party’ finds Tesfaye in an obnoxious mood, lacking the element of self-awareness that is vital to his best work, and while ‘Gone’ and ‘Rolling Stone’ capture young Abel at his most lost, they are easier to appreciate than actually like — in fact, they sound quite muddled and grating.
Though Tesfaye does his best to keep the listener at arm’s length, both sonically and with his indomitable swagger, material from Echoes of Silence as well the new tracks hint at a new-found maturity, while a rousing cover of ‘Dirty Diana’ lends credence to the idea of the Weeknd as the Michael Jackson of the post-808s & Heartbreak era. “I’m living for the present and the future don’t exist,” he croons mid-way though ‘Loft Music’, but is Abel now willing to escape such oppressive hedonism? Either way, Trilogy gives no reason to believe that the Weeknd’s next move will be anything less than fascinating.