Adam Lawler looks back on the twisted nocturnal R&B classic that set pop on a dark path forever.
House of Balloons should come with the subtitle “The Weeknd album no Weeknd fan has heard.” This introduction to Abel Tesfaye’s shadowy world of drugs, isolation, and meaningless sexual encounters is replete with the scope, innovation, and cohesion that should gain it classic status.
The most urgent of the Canadian recluse’s 2011 trilogy of mixtapes, House of Balloons is a laser-focused mission statement of ill-intent. His is not a darkness populated by menacing figures. The only figures present are the narrator’s demons, and the plot is his choosing to wallow in self-destruction indefinitely. It’s intoxicating.
Although the songs unfurl slowly over cold synth washes and minimally spacious beats, a penchant for pop accessibility is always present. This can be seen in the title of “What You Need” being repeated ad nauseum over a glacial Kid A soundtrack, the walloping dubstep beat of opener “High for This,” and the bleary-eyed gorgeousness of “The Morning,” as well as the heightened melodrama of “Wicked Games.” There is also that voice, emitting from a nameless, mysterious figure. The high, boyish tone belied in turn the confident and pained lyrics, the latter only in tremulous vibrato. Drenched in reverb, it evoked a heavy-lidded Michael Jackson even before Tesfaye covered “Dirty Diana” or became a poor-man’s version later in his career.
To glance outside the murky windows of the project is to see its indelible influence
“House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls” is the only song that could testily be described as upbeat, but its length, beat switch-up, undercurrent of skewed buzz-saw synths and Siouxsie and the Banshees sample place it firmly in an otherworldly zone. It is dizzying evocation of train-derailing hedonism. Tasteful alt-rock samples are a common thread throughout the project. Even the album artwork resembles Spiritualized in an opium den. Everything nodded to a quiet yet assuredly detail-orientated artist who knew his influences, but also how to transcend the sum of them.
To glance outside the murky windows of the project is to see its indelible influence. Everything from Take Care’s nocturnal solipsism to artists such as Banks, Jessie Ware, Frank Ocean, and Selena Gomez bear his grimy fingerprint. They may have adapted his sound into different strands, but the chilly underground minimalism and darkness are sewn into the DNA of all. A lot of people owe Abel cheques.
Subsequent projects may have shed some commercial light on the singer and allowed him to veer into self-parody, but they have added nothing to the legend, the character or the sound. This is a testament to the sonic world-building that he showcased so sublimely on House of Balloons. The Weeknd bridged the alternative and the accessible changing the landscape of pop forever. For that House of Balloons deserves a place in every record collection.