At first, you expect The Weeknd to descend from on high, striking a pose atop the gargantuan lighting rig — an intimidating cross between a “Star Wars” Star Destroyer and an origami paper plane, otherworldly strobes pulsing from geometric veins as its trifold components shift and split — that kick-starts his current tour by initially tilting toward the audience, as if to crash-land, before reversing course and raising, ready to blast off and leave the arena behind.
But it was more fitting for the Canadian import (real name: Abel Tesfaye) when, at his propulsive TD Garden stop Tuesday — part of the second phase of his year-long “Legend of the Fall” world tour — he instead rose from the floor, suddenly appearing in the center of the arena’s lengthy catwalk to immediately amp up the youthful crowd with skittering chart-topper “Starboy,” the title track off his third and most recent studio album.
Tesfaye’s always been sneaky that way; despite the LED bombast of his surroundings, both across live performances and his music’s increasingly ritzy production, the singer himself prefers a direct approach, his Michael Jackson falsetto and snarling lyricism cutting through whatever lavish aesthetic he’s implementing with ruthless efficiency.
It’s been that way since the early days, when The Weeknd was the music industry’s biggest mystery man, his name and face obscured even as a breakout trilogy of mixtapes — all shadow-soaked, silver-tongued dives through sex-dungeon R&B — left a mark on the pop landscape, their dark, drug-fueled odes to kink and cruelty influencing everyone from Drake to Tove Lo. Back then, Tesfaye seemed to revel in leaving listeners to speculate as he let the lyrics speak for themselves (“Bring your love, baby, I could bring my shame/Bring the drugs, baby, I could bring my pain,” off “Wicked Games,” which he performed with scorching soul on Tuesday, comes to mind).
But then came hits “Can’t Feel My Face” and “Earned It,” both preceding his second studio album with enough fanfare as to make a mainstream introduction inevitable. And so Tesfaye steered into the spotlight, his whomping-willow hairdo and fashion savvy ensuring few magazines would tire of splashing him across their covers, and found it to his liking. Last year’s “Starboy,” which constituted most of Tuesday’s set, still employed shadow play and wolfish eroticism but did so within a disco soundscape informed by Daft Punk’s dancefloor electronica.
Correspondingly, Tuesday’s setlist often turned the concert into a futuristic house party, Tesfaye confidently prowling up and down the runway as he raced through a 90-minute set that found time for early hits like hypnotic slow-burner “The Morning” while enlisting arena-ready pyrotechnics for sing-alongs like the menacing “Six Feet Under” (which the singer cannily merged with same-sounding Future collab “Low Life”) and ecstatic “Can’t Feel My Face.”
Mirroring the monolithic structure above him, Tesfaye never seemed more poised for takeoff than when, late in the night, he crooned the shimmering, ascendant “I Feel It Coming,” his brightest track. It read as a statement of sorts that, despite the artist’s recent excursions into sunnier pop territory, he wasn’t content to leave it there, instead closing with “The Hills,” a particularly forbidding number that Tesfaye gamely laced with the same sense of sinful sensuality that’s long been — and seems to remain, even as the star(boy) rises — his preferred calling card.
At TD Garden, Tuesday nightIsaac Feldberg can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.