Its quick follow-up, Thursday, is not a disappointment, though it's hard to imagine many records standing up to the majesty—or novelty—of House of Balloons. On Balloons the star was Tesfaye's voice and chilling lyrics, but on Thursday he begins to recede into a haze of narcotic numbing and the piercing aural shrapnel of tinnitus frequencies. Rather than crystal-clear crooning, we get choirs of Tesfayes swirling and winding around elaborate, meandering songs. Opener "Lonely Star" takes thirty seconds of psychedelia to congeal into anything recognizable, but even then it feels like Tesfaye's voice is struggling to be heard amidst the cacophonous choir of drum machines, shrill guitar squalls and bursts of white noise. The result is a record that feels less immediate, but maybe more engrossing.
The palette of Thursday is vaguely threatening: the ska accents on the hard-rock-tinged "Life of the Party" feel mockingly mechanical, and the militancy gets literal on "The Birds Part 1" where Tesfaye warns a potential lover "not to fall in love with a nigger like me" over the sounds of a firing squad marauding through the streets. The only time it lets up is on the album's eerily empty midsection, Tesfaye's freestyled ruminations laying in a pool of decadent reverb ("Thursday," "The Zone").
Tesfaye's lyrics are as unflinching as ever, growing more probingly introspective and self-doubting in the pattern of most victims of addiction. The self-destructive impulse is as gripping as ever: on "Rolling Stone" he pledges to "keep on smokin' till I can't hit another note" and then breaks out into two minutes of gorgeous falsetto. It's as dangerous as it is tragic. He's more and more misogynistic, more violent and more pathetic, and in a way the album's best trick is its most narcissistic: its initial impenetrability pulls listeners back into its complicated and twisted world again and again, until they're as wrapped up in it as the tortured protagonist. "Welcome to the other side," Tesfaye malevolently intones on the goosebump-inducing "Life of the Party," and he's right: We've gone this far into his permanently blurred world, and there's no going back now.