"Foggy," "murky," "bleary" — those were the words that once described Abel Tesfaye's work as the Weeknd, in which this Canadian singer used moody, open-ended R&B arrangements to deliver clouded confessions (or were they boasts?) about living in a haze of illegal drugs and ill-advised sex.
The approach, well-suited to an age of online fact-fudging, established Tesfaye as an important presence. Rappers like Drake and Rick Ross sought him out for collaborations, and he sold more than half a million copies of "Trilogy," a major-label repackaging of three Internet mixtapes he originally released for free in 2011. Yet the man himself, an unwilling participant in the celebrity-industrial complex as his fame grew, remained a mystery, even to his fans.
That fog is beginning to burn off with the Weeknd's "Beauty Behind the Madness," an impressive and revealing new album full of expertly crafted pop songs with clear-cut commercial goals.
"We did it all alone," he declares in "Losers." "Now we're coming for the throne."
The Weeknd's campaign for a mainstream breakthrough stretches back to "Love Me Harder," his lightly salacious 2014 duet with Ariana Grande, and "Earned It," the plush ballad he recorded for the "Fifty Shades of Grey" soundtrack. (Both songs cracked the top 10 of Billboard's Hot 100.)
In April, Tesfaye returned to Coachella (the site of a very shaky Weeknd performance in 2012) and stunned the crowd with his growth as a live performer. Then he dropped "Can't Feel My Face," a disco-kissed team-up with the hitmaking Swedish producer Max Martin that was a contender for the song of the summer.
As he puts it in "Tell All Your Friends," a dusty retro-soul number co-produced by Kanye West: "Last year I did all the politicking / This year I'm-a focus on the vision."
On "Beauty Behind the Madness," Tesfaye's musical ambition matches — and reflects — his drive for success. Having broadened his crew of longtime creative partners to include the likes of Martin and Stephan Moccio (a songwriter who's worked with Celine Dion and co-wrote Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball"), he covers an enormous amount of ground, from the warm shuffle of "Losers" to the harshly electronic "The Hills" to "In the Night," one of several gleaming tributes to mid-'80s Michael Jackson.
"Shameless" layers Tesfaye's flowery vocal runs over folky acoustic guitar; "Dark Times" aims for the blues with help from Ed Sheeran.
But although the songs can be grandiose — such as "Angel," a sweeping power ballad (complete with children's choir) that recalls "November Rain" by Guns N' Roses — they're structured tightly enough for Top 40 radio, with sleek grooves and sturdy melodies underpinning the state-of-the-art production touches.
Tesfaye's singing has never been better either, whether he's emphasizing the delicacy of his voice (as in "Prisoner," which features Lana Del Rey) or feeling its frayed edges ("Dark Times").
Lyrically, he's letting some air into the dank misanthropy that once defined his music. "Can't Feel My Face" compares a romance to taking drugs, a familiar Weeknd trope, but summons delight rather than misery. "As You Are" pledges devotion in spite of "your broken heart and all your scars," a theme he revisits for "In the Night," which sympathizes with a victim of sexual abuse.
In "Angel," he even looks beyond his own desires, wishing a woman well in the event that things don't work out between them. By Tesfaye's famously depraved standards, that's the equivalent of "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
Shadows still lurk, of course, as in "Tell All Your Friends," which recounts a grim stretch of homelessness Tesfaye has said he spent in his native Toronto. In "The Hills," he scoffs at anyone "trying to send me off to rehab," bragging that "drugs started feeling like it's decaf."
And then there's "Shameless," a deeply twisted — and scarily beautiful — love song in which he promises to continue enabling a troubled lover's addiction to pain.
Even at its darkest, however, "Beauty Behind the Madness" functions differently from the "Trilogy" material or "Kiss Land," the Weeknd's first studio album from 2013. Back then, Tesfaye was relying on grisly details to keep his listeners at arm's length — gross-out theater, basically, meant to protect him from real engagement.
Here, on a record whose first song is called "Real Life," he's trying hard to present a complete picture of himself, however disturbing some of the colors. The accomplishment is that his most clearly contrived record is also his most believable.