Early Paramore was full of purgative teenage fury. Hayley Williams, just 16 when the emo-rock band’s debut album came out, described her music as “like word-vomit put to guitars”, its carefully crafted caterwauls the perfect soundtrack to youthful angst. But on Petals for Armor, Williams’s first solo record, “rage is a quiet thing”.
It is perhaps the best opening line – sung on “Simmer” over percussive breaths, gasps and a creeping bass riff – of any album this year. Though it might seem like a contradiction in terms, it evokes a specifically female anger – one that is constantly repressed, suppressed, belittled and overlooked, and which Williams grabs hold of and transmutes.
Released in three parts and written in the aftermath of divorce, depression and a PTSD diagnosis, the record reflects an evolution – albeit not a straightforward one – towards some kind of peace. For the most part insular and sparse, with a distorted funk that feels deliberately disorienting, it is far from the foot-stomping stadium anthems of Paramore of old. Far even from the band’s excellent 2017 record After Laughter, which flung itself into the arms of Eighties synth-pop. Instead, on songs like “Cinnamon” and “Sugar on the Rim”, there’s an uncomfortable edge to Williams’s melodies. Just like Fiona Apple or St Vincent, she refuses to put an easy score to her own complicated emotions.
“Sudden Desire”, an R&B-laced flurry whose exultant chorus was inspired by Björk, sees her walking side by side with her own pain: “Take the elephant by the hand and hold it/ It's cruel to tame a thing that don't know its strength … My gentle giant/ Painful reminder.” There is dark wit here, too. “Nobody tell me that God don’t have a sense of humour,” she sings over eerie bass on “Leave It Alone”, “‘cus now that I want to live a little, everyone around me’s dying.”
There are shades of Madonna’s “Vogue” to “Over Yet”, which is glitchy and manic, as if Williams is running full-speed towards something. “Dead Horse”, one of the perkiest earworms on the album, is preceded by a frank voice memo. “Alright, it took me three days to send you this,” she says, “but, sorry, I was in a depression/ I’m trying to come out of it now.”
Petals for Armor doesn’t offer up an easy redemptive arc towards happiness; it is a Herculean effort to pull yourself out of depression. But in letting us in on that effort, Williams has created something special.
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