Friday, May 8, 2020

Review: Petals for Armor • Hayley Williams

A solo record from Hayley Williams never seemed like a necessity. Having spent half her life in enigmatic pop-rock band Paramore, she has been the band’s sole lead vocalist; the comparatively steady pillar in the band’s 15-year history; and its only member bound to the band’s record contract. For all intents and purposes, Hayley Williams is Paramore, a band that breaks the obligatory expiration date for bands began by teenagers. But now that a Hayley Williams solo record has been produced, it feels more like a necessity than ever expected – perhaps for her more than anybody else.

Petals for Amor captures an autobiographic component rarely reflected so deeply on a Paramore record. On the band’s last release, for example, Williams packaged her anxiety in some lighthearted, sometimes satirical pop-rock songs and billed her feelings to the ongoing professional turbulence during press junkets at the time. Her solo record pulls from the root: For the first time in her career, Williams spotlights herself – raw, unfiltered, without the glamour of the flashing Paramore marquee to distract. She explores the aftermath of ignored mental health ailments, compacted feelings, and a decade-long relationship that both began and ended with infidelity. 

Between early pop-punk work and Grammy Award-winning pop-rock material in the 2010s, Paramore never seemed to constrain Williams. Petals for Armor makes a natural progression from Paramore’s latest iteration: Like 2017’s After Laughter, this record pays tasteful homage to ‘80s new wave at times – but it’s more straightforward, contemporary in style, and purposely off-kilter. She screens a nostalgic buzz over various shades of post-Annie Clark art pop derivatives. To translate her depression, she loads the front of the record with unexpected syncopation, dissonant vocoders, and solemn open spaces; and as her emotions are ironed out, her songwriting choices begin to feel more orthodox. The unnerving moaned hook of “Cinnamon” flips a song about the comfort of her home into a madhouse; by contrast, “Over Yet” is a warm, breezy cut packed with enough energy to inspire an at-home workout video.

The dozens, if not hundreds, of songs written about the other woman are immediate: It happened. I left him. We all should hate them both right now. But what happens to the other woman? How does she feel? Where does she end up a decade from now? Right about here, it seems. (“I got what I deserved. I was the other woman first,” Williams reveals on “Dead Horse,” an ironically upbeat cut that explores the karmic and mental repercussions of her decade-old decision.) Structured with emotional continuity in mind, Petals for Armor reflects on the long-term repercussions and follows her unsteady trudge toward stability. Though she allows herself to wallow in morbid depression on “Simmer” and “Leave It Alone,” the tension dissipates with each track and gives way to acceptance and recovery by the record’s close: “Pure Love” bursts open into a glitzy powerhouse triumph, and “Sugar on the Rim” lays some cool vocal work over the record's funkiest bass.

Not to be chalked up as just Williams’ dead sprint toward amplified pop music, Petals for Armor treats her solo material as the elastic venture it should be. While she grabs onto others' established stylistic choices from across contemporary music to craft her own fleeting shades of pop, Williams has crafted a record with few pitfalls; it remains engaging without losses in consistency or storytelling. With blunt lyricism, dynamic vocal performances, and progressively expansive soundscapes, the tracks carry a lineage that seems natural and logical. If it were a secret-spilling book, it would be a tough read for quite a few chapters. As a record, however, Petals for Armor translates a postmortem on the past decade of her life into a career-redefining musical monument.

Petals for Armor is available now under Atlantic Records.

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