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Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: The Weeknd, ‘House of Balloons’ (#488)

Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, a.k.a. The Weeknd, was born and raised in Toronto, the son of Ethiopian immigrants.  Brought up by his mother and grandmother, Abel’s family attended the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, and something about that experience seems to have permanently lodged itself in The Weeknd’s personal and artistic worldview:

As God made it, the world was very good.  But evil came there in it.  God who made the world is ever concerned and active to save it from the clutches of evil and restore it to the destiny for which it has been created. — ‘The Mystery of the Incarnation

Prefiguring Montrero Hill’s model of internet distribution by about a decade, Tesfaye put his first music out anonymously, on YouTube.  In 2011, he and some partners created a record label, XO, and he put out a series of what he called ‘mixtapes’, releasing them on the XO website.

‘House of Balloons’ is the title track of the first of these mixtapes.  ‘Balloons’ borrows heavily from both the sound and theme of Siouxie and the Banshees’ ‘Happy House’, but with none of the earlier song’s sardonic distance from its subject.  Siouxie may have been able to pretend all’s well and that there is no Hell, but by the time we get to ‘Balloons’, that pretense has vanished in an obliterating fog of timeless days and writhing bodies and chemical misadventure.  The Weeknd, with his high, exotic voice, navigates this territory — Circle 2.5 in Dante’s Inferno, somewhere between Lust and Gluttony — as both participant and observer.

God who created the world made man as the crown of creation.  Made in God’s image and endowed with creaturely freedom and autonomy, man seeks God and reflects on His being and nature.  Through the wrong exercise of mans’ free will there came on him and the world at large misery and suffering as well as sin and evil.  The salvation of the world, therefore, required pre-eminently the healing of man. — ‘The Mystery of the Incarnation

Let’s grant that this redemptive aspect is not to be found in ‘House of Balloons’, but taken in context with the rest of Tesfaye’s output, with some squinting and a bit of imagination, one might be able to make out the beginning of something in ‘Balloons’ — a sort of self-awareness, at least — that looks like light at the end of tunnel.

Michael Strum: “I can’t figure out what House of Balloons‘ title track is supposed to be, which I think is part of its charm. It’s very current — very woke — to smash genre-based labels and mix-and-match boldly. There’s much to admire on House of Balloons,. though I think the title track isn’t the shiniest light here. The imagery on ‘The Morning’ hits home, and ‘Glass Table Girls’ has some interesting ideas thematically. ‘Wicked Games’ is intriguing stylistically. There’s real talent here, and much to enjoy. I can’t stop myself from adding that it belongs nowhere ‘So What’, and it being ranked ahead hurts my brain.”

Rolling Stone: Far from the international superstar he’d become, Toronto singer-songwriter Abel Tesfaye didn’t even send out photos or do any interviews when he released the first Weeknd album. “The whole ‘enigmatic artist’ thing, I just ran with it,” he said. “No one could find pictures of me. It reminded me of some villain shit.” But the title track of House of Balloons nevertheless set the course for his career, both thematically — drugs and sex, meet depression — and musically, with its sample of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Happy House” announcing a new direction for R&B.

2 replies on “Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: The Weeknd, ‘House of Balloons’ (#488)”

I admire his humble start and motivation to “make it happen” on his own terms. A model I wish all of my musician friends will embrace. 💜

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