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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Sacrifice" is both a dance floor-ready pop anthem and a narrative turning point

In The Weeknd's newest single, he revels in his old lifestyle one last time before his outlook on love shifts across the rest of the album.

It took a few days for me to get around to it, but early this morning, I put my plan into action upon waking up and listened to The Weeknd's new album, Dawn FM. The plan was simple: listen to it at dawn, which I did as I prepared for and drove to work.

Dawn FM is certainly an experiential album, with its radio aesthetic and connecting tracks making for a very clear structure. I was honestly weirded out by Jim Carrey's narration, simply because his voice is so distinctive and it's hard for me to think of anything he does as serious. As for The Weeknd's music, I was impressed. There were a couple hit-or-miss moments that missed for me, including the British accent-like tone on the "opener" "Gasoline," but as a whole I found Dawn FM to be a fitting progression of the sonic template begun by 2020's After Hours. The 80s-inspired sound continues, with some clear homages to Michael Jackson and Prince, but the modern psychedelic leaning that plays to the album's purgatory narrative makes it stand out from its decades-old influences. The narrative perspective, too, distinguishes the record from the rest of The Weeknd's catalog, as I'll discuss later on.

After my first listen, it took me a bit to decide between "Sacrifice" and "Less Than Zero" as the Senior Year Soundtrack selection from the album — and, as a result, from The Weeknd's catalog as a whole. Ultimately, I decided on "Sacrifice," which was just pushed to top 40 radio as Dawn FM's second single today. At the (literal) end of the day, it's the song to which I most wanted to go back for another listen. Honestly, I should've seen it coming: not only is as close to house music as the base album gets, but it's co-produced by some of my favorite talents of the electronic world.

My love for house music is well-documented within the 140 (holy cow, I'm that far along?!) articles preceding tonight's. Particularly relevant to "Sacrifice" is yesterday's post on Duck Sauce's "aNYway," in which I discussed house being "disco's revenge." "Sacrifice" isn't quite house, but it's awfully close, and I definitely regard it as a modernization of disco. The beat certainly evokes the late 70s sound, as does the era-appropriate sample of Alicia Myers' 1981 song "I Want to Thank You." The high strings in the background add an extra disco-like glint on top of the sample.

Then there's the guitar at the forefront of the instrumental — chunky and low-end heavy, but propulsive through its syncopation. It sounds quite disco-like, but I hear its influence as coming from the more recent world of 21st century house. Said influence comes through three co-producers of "Sacrifice," who just so happen to be some of my favorite electronic producers of all time: Axwell, Steve Angello, and Sebastian Ingrosso, better known together as the Swedish House Mafia. The Swedes signed with The Weeknd's manager Sal Slaiby last April, and they've since joined forces with his fellow client on three tracks: October release "Moth to a Flame," "Sacrifice," and "How Do I Make You Love Me?" two tracks earlier on Dawn FM. The trio — particularly Axwell — are no strangers to using guitar or guitar-like tones on projects both within and outside the Mafia, and I instantly knew they were behind the guitar tone on "Sacrifice." The tone is quite reminiscent of a sound on Axwell and Ingrosso's Monsters University collaboration "Roar," though Axwell has confirmed he did not sample himself.

Swedish House Mafia may have drawn from earlier eras in their career with the guitar tone, but they also most certainly based the rest of the production in their new sound. I'm glad they did, because by doing so they both stay true to themselves and superbly match The Weeknd's sonic profile: dark and club-ready, with plenty of 80s-derived textural synth flavor. Listen to "Lifetime" (featuring Ty Dolla $ign and 070 Shake) for more of a feel of that sound, and you'll definitely hear tonal similarities to "Sacrifice."

As he sings, The Weeknd alternates between residing above and within the Swedes' sound. I find it really interesting to listen to how he changes his timbre (the character of his voice) between different sections, and how that change corresponds to his narrative perspective. In the verses and pre-chorus, when he's more above the instrumental, his tone is more rounded and slightly darker. He sings of his struggles to reel himself in and stop himself from living his damaging, party-heavy and hedonistic lifestyle. The opening verse implies that his birthplace of Toronto, "a city / Where the winter nights don't ever sleep," set him up to be a cold, emotionless person, even to women who love and "try to fix" him. Regardless of what it is that caused such a behavior, he recognizes its recurrence through his tendency to not give into his lovers' desires. Considering his previous musical output, it isn't surprising that he "sacrificed... love for more of the night"; old habits die hard, and he can't begin being loyal so easily, even as he feigns empathy. When the chorus comes in, The Weeknd sings in his typical brighter tone, squarely in the middle of the sound, of how he "[doesn't] want to sacrifice" to receive his partner's affection. With the final chorus lyric, "But I love my time," it becomes clear that he is content with his lack of commitment, something solidified by the third verse.

The confidence with which The Weeknd sings is nothing new — his "my, ooh" octave jumps are so coolly delivered and infectiously compelling for listeners to sing along with him — but his change in perspective on "Sacrifice" from older songs is what makes the track stand out from his past eras. He's far more accepting of being on his own, understanding he isn't the kind of person who will change for love. What makes the rest of Dawn FM interesting, following the opening section "Sacrifice" wraps up, is how he transitions to becoming more understanding of his mistakes in love. As a result, he becomes more cautious regarding starting a new relationship, one in which he appears he would put much more effort than his past self. In this manner, "Sacrifice" strikes me as a last hurrah for The Weeknd's playboy lifestyle within the connected narrative of After Hours and Dawn FM, with a hint of acceptance pushing him forward into the rest of his new record. In the subsequent tracks, he begins to reflect en route to the purification necessary to move on from the purgatory that is Dawn FM into whatever light lies ahead in his next era.


Postscript — remix: I just spent a lot of time talking about how "Sacrifice" toes the line with house music, while not fully immersing itself in that world. Well, the Swedish House Mafia themselves decided to take their original production that extra step over the line with their remix. The result is a darker, more pounding rendition that would feel at home on any club DJ's set list. As of now I narrowly prefer the standard album version, but I definitely feel the house cut growing on me alongside the original.


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