Song: ‘Can’t Feel My Face’
Artist: The Weeknd
US chart peak: 1
Release date: June 8, 2015
Writers: Ali Payami, Savan Kotecha, Max Martin, Abel Tesfaye, Peter Svensson
Producers: Max Martin, Ali Payami
Quintessential Max moment: “ah, ah, ah, ooh!”
Video synopsis: The Weeknd having a singsong in a bar before bursting into flames for a bit
The gateway drug for The Weeknd’s immersion into the proper pop ‘milieu’ was Ariana Grande’s ‘Love Me Harder’, released the previous year. Co-written and co-produced by most of the same people as ‘Can’t Feel My Face’, it was the first time The Weeknd had moved into the world of pop radio. It was a move that would change his career. “When he did ‘Love Me Harder’ and it exploded he apparently realised the difference between having a hit in the credible world and having a hit in the commercial world,” co-writer Savan Kotecha told me in an interview with Popjustice. “He’s an ambitious guy.” Thankfully the move helped prevent him from wasting his obvious talent moaning and groaning over some narcoleptic beats for the rest of his career (given the way his 2013 ‘Kiss Land’ album had performed, it felt like he knew a change was needed).
After realising he could be a proper superstar outside of the internet, The Weeknd and Max’s team decided to work on songs for his ‘Beauty Behind The Madness’ album. It didn’t exactly start brilliantly, with both sides steadily feeling the other out. “I hadn’t heard any of his music until we worked on ‘Love Me Harder’ and I don’t think Max or anyone had either,” said Kotecha. “We talked on the phone a couple of times. We didn’t know what to expect really, but we prepared a couple of things and he came in and wasn’t sure and said it wasn’t really him.” After a tricky day in the studio the group went to watch him at the Hollywood Bowl, which is when everything started to click. “He could have just continued doing what he was doing and to take that risk with us, I think we learnt to respect him a lot more. We understood it. Something snapped in all of us that night and then we did ‘In The Night’, ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ and ‘Shameless’.”
In fact, rather than feel immediately alienating, ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ pulls off a neat trick of opening in a very Weeknd sort of way – the whole song feels tense, like it’s just suspended in air. Empty, almost. It also focuses on a very Weeknd lyrical trope – love as a drug (some of its brilliance comes from the slight naughtiness of him getting a song sort of about him taking loads of drugs onto the radio). The musical jolt arrives with a very Michael Jackson-esque howl and suddenly we’re back in 1979 with ‘Off The Wall’ playing and Jackson’s vocals syncopation hovering over every note. It’s also there in the way his voice pivots between hard and cold and soft and gooey (“…when I’m with youuuuu”). It’s a facsimile of that sound, sure, but it works wonders (that amazing pre-chorus bit!) and is another example of Max being able to craft the perfect re-defining song for an artist exactly when they need it.
As a sidenote, Savan also told me there was supposed to be a bridge in the song but it didn’t fit in the end. “So sometimes you have to kill your babies, as we call it,” he added. Such ruthless pop efficiency.