Song: ‘Blinding Lights’
Artist: The Weeknd
US chart peak: 1
Release date: November 29, 2019
Writers: Abel Tesfaye, Ahmad Balshe, Jason Quenneville, Max Martin, Oscar Holter
Producers: Max Martin, Oscar Holter, The Weeknd
Quintessential Max moment: The little melodic lift into the pre-chorus, all of the middle eight.
Video synopsis: The Hangover directed by the Safdie brothers.
Well here we are, Max’s first US top 10 of 2020 [EDIT: AND NOW, AS OF 31 MARCH, HIS FIRST US NUMBER 1 SINCE 2016’S ‘CAN’T STOP THE FEELING!’]. Quite a lot has happened since the last time he graced the highest reaches of the Billboard chart, back in May 2019, when ‘I Don’t Care’ became his second hit of that year. He’s since launched a jukebox musical in London, for a start (such a great interview with him here, honestly, wow), a UK-centric move that tallies with one of his most successful years on the British charts for an age, landing six UK hits with his name attached including Sam Smith’s ‘How Do You Sleep?’, two more for Ed Sheeran and Ariana Grande et al’s ‘Don’t Call Me Angel’. It’s notable because there seems to be an ever-growing chasm between the prevalent sound of the Billboard chart – very hip-hop-orientated, quite slow in tempo – and that of the still pretty pop-leaning British Top 40 (‘Don’t Call Me Angel’, for example, peaked at number 2 in the UK as opposed to number 13 in the US).
The difference was laid bare by the one-two punch of the first two singles from The Weeknd’s forthcoming ‘After Hours’ album. Released two days after the trap-leaning, Metro Boomin-produced ‘Heartless’, the delirious 80s pop melange of ‘Blinding Lights’ had to play second fiddle, in the US at least. While ‘Heartless’ entered the Billboard Hot 100 at number 1 just before Christmas, ‘Blinding Lights’ took twelve weeks to crack the US top 10. In the UK, meanwhile, it became his first ever number 1 single, while ‘Heartless’ peaked at 10 and dropped quickly.
ANYWAY, this is all by the by, because ‘Blinding Lights’ is by far the superior song, a ludicrous neon beam of fluorescent 80s synth-pop that references A-ha’s ‘Take on Me’, the Stranger Things soundtrack and some sort of Lyrca-clad workout video filmed by David LaChapelle. The key, as with ‘Can’t Feel My Face’, is that it slots neatly into The Weeknd’s wheelhouse of drug-addled relationship woes, while also showcasing how great a popstar he can be when he’s not pandering to fans of his gloopy sadboy stuff. There’s a real rush of excitement when he rises into that immaculate chorus (“I said..!”), or the way his Jackson-esque falsetto glides effortlessly into that middle eight – “will never let you go this time” – which in turn just settles back down into the chorus.
Brilliantly, despite its trim 3:22 running time, it also doesn’t sound pressurised into cramming everything in to please a streaming audience who apparently have no time for anything other than an immediate, Tik Tok-ready hook and a 120 second duration. There’s an elongated intro for one, while the final choruses rise and fall throughout a spacious instrumental in which that simple, glacial riff has time to tap dance across your brain in Gucci loafers. Also, please listen out for the lovely backing vocals that surround the post-middle eight instrumental section, and the mighty, Hoover-esque synths that feel like they’re about the suck the song into a different orbit around the 2:38 mark.
2020 is already shaping up to be a pretty interesting year for Max, with more credits on Sam Smith’s ‘To Die For’ album, a co-write on Justin Timberlake and SZA’s new one and, finally, some studio time with Lady Gaga (some quotes about all that here). Could be good.