Universal Republic won the ensuing bidding war for the wan woos of the once-anonymous former American Apparel employee. The 23-year old Toronto native received his own XO vanity imprint, toured the globe and sold 300,000 copies of last year’s “Trilogy,” a triple-disc collection of mix tapes originally offered for free on the Internet.
Depending on your mathematics, “Kiss Land” is either his fourth album or first commercial release of original material. Regardless, Tesfaye’s songs of addled despondency remain the same. But the problems are tonal and topical. Tesfaye has described the album title as an imagined saturnine state of horror, suspense and fear. But the songs within boast the rare ability to replicate the numbness of too many illicit stimulants while still being able to put you to sleep.
Welcome to the banality of eros. “Kiss Land” unravels as a series of uninteresting romantic seductions conducted over a monochrome gray palette. There is menace but no drama. Rather than compelling ambiguity, there is only a sleazy vagueness. It fits into the pattern of diminishing returns that Tesfaye has been locked in since his throat-gripping debut. The songs attempt to mine the same silver haze of breathy vocals, atmospheric synths and false promises. And the album plays like a futile attempt to re-create that fleeting first high.
Attitude is established from the first words: “It’s ideal / You need someone to tell you how to feel.” Nearly every narrative is devoted to a disembodied tryst between Tesfaye and an anonymous conquest. They typically fall into two categories. The first are the girls he jilted back home when he left to become a world-conquering superstar. Sometimes, as on “Pretty” or “The Town,” they deign to take up with another man as a response to his unslakable thirst for groupies. This makes him sad, but he copes with it by demanding their non-negotiable return. Spoiler alert: His pleas usually work.
Then there are the girls he meets on tour, whom he treats with a wanton disregard usually found only in maritime sailors, pimp-rappers and disgraced politicians. On songs such as “Kiss Land,” you never learn their names or a single incidental detail. You just hear clichés about how they’re “too damn fly.” Or “go ’head girl / strip it down / close your mouth / I just wanna hear your body talk.”
This doesn’t necessarily make him sad, but Tesfaye usually follows it up with a drug prescription that ensures his serotonin levels will never recover. It’s like listening to the tour diary of an R&B singer with Asperger’s syndrome, a bustling Snapchat account and a substance abuse problem. Sex and seduction have never seemed so joyless or hollow. He wants your pity, but he’s not sure why. And he doesn’t invite empathy by moaning boasts about his brand new place, which he “thinks I’ve seen twice all year.”
Many of these flaws could be obviated with tight writing, memorable melodies and an occasional willingness to switch up his cadences. But Tesfaye seems content to rely strictly on ethereal textures, Portishead drum samples and melismatic singing heavily indebted to late-period Michael Jackson. It’s the Derek Zoolander school of songwriting: Every track has the exact same look. Tesfaye could make a rendition of “Happy Birthday” sound like a mournful requiem.
“House of Balloons” captured the synapse-seared 5 a.m. blues with terrifying accuracy. Songs such as “The Party & The After Party” felt like a complete journey. You saw the high heels and designer handbags. You felt the carpet burns that came when lust couldn’t wait until the bedroom. “Kiss Land” is resigned to often-unrhymed generalities such as those heard on “Love in the Sky.” Sample lyric: “You said you’ve been to the sky / We’ll go beyond that.”
The lone outlier is the chill-wave disco of “Wanderlust,” on which Tesfaye proves that his strong tenor sounds especially right over upbeat funky chord progressions. Should he ever explore the daylight hours, one senses the possibility of a bright future.
Until then, his vampiric romps feel eerily bloodless and identical. “Kiss Land” isn’t so much a place for bad dreams as a blank, cloudless hibernation. Tesfaye’s lament on the finale “Tears in the Rain” explains it all: “Now every girl I touch . . . they all feel the same.” If he can’t tell the difference, what hope do the rest of us have?
Weiss is a freelance writer.