By Alex Szeptycki
On her solo debut, the former Paramore lead singer undergoes a startling transformation.
Petals for Armor, Hayley Williams. Atlantic
For many angst-ridden teenage music enthusiasts (myself included), Hayley Williams and her band Paramore were elemental presences. Their energetic and hopelessly catchy style of pop-punk, along with bands like Green Day and Blink 182, served up a fervently passionate soundtrack for aughts youth. Thus the troupe’s artistic legacy is already secured. Still, just as we grew up, so too must musicians. And how Hayley has grown. Her solo debut, Petals for Armor, is a startling evolution, a metamorphosis into introspective and adventurous pop music that mostly goes over well.
In Petals for Armor, Hayley Williams is determined to move radically away from the stylistic imprint of Paramore. Perhaps because this album is so exploratory, it is in danger of coming off as artistically diffuse. But the tracks do not feel disjointed — for the most part. All the different sounds brought in by Williams and her band are thoughtfully arranged, in a manner that revels in sonic variety. On songs like “Simmer,” Williams harkens back to an edgier sound, singing about her anger issues over a funky, brooding instrumental. Elsewhere, on “Over Yet,” a punk-influenced, driving instrumental is blended with a more open, synth pop chorus to create a strikingly effective contrast.
At times this appetite for risk crosses the border into full-fledged pop experimentation, with some stellar results. “Sugar on the Rim” is carried by its bold vocals. It begins sparsely, populated by only hand percussion, as Hayley repeats the title in a spoken word monotone. This mantra-like delivery is joined by a syncopated synth line that becomes a new foundation for the tune, as Williams starts singing in earnest. By the chorus, the track has expanded into fully-fledged synth pop. The mantra of “Sugar on the Rim” has turned into a metaphor for personal growth that is achieved through painful hardship — or “a kiss to every scar,” as Williams sings on the chorus. The strange, disparate combinations work together to create a fresh experience of overcoming trauma.
Still, this experimentation results in the occasional stumble, even within good songs. “Cinnamon” sounds like few other pop songs. The song is built around warped backing vocals as well as an erratic drum beat that takes provocative liberties with tempo. The tune stops, starts, and then wanders off from its melody: it is an interesting — though distraction for the sake of distraction, — touch. These oddities reflect the playfulness of the lyrics. Williams sings about her eccentricities at home alone, from “eating breakfast in the nude” to “talking with my dog.” These images are strange, personal, and compelling. Overall, “Cinnamon” is intriguing but slightly too determined to be strange for its own good.
In truth, Williams’ lyrics are the album’s strongest component, rescuing some of its weaker instrumental moments. On “Leave it Alone,” for example, a soft and unremarkable acoustic passage is helped because it accompanies a powerful intimation of mortality. “Don’t nobody tell me/That God don’t have a sense of humor/’Cause now that I want to live/Well, everybody around me is dying,” sings a morose Williams, bitterly mourning those close to her who have died. The sentiment is tragic and artfully expressed — which elevates an otherwise drab song.
The album’s best moments come when Williams’ lyricism dovetails with muscular instrumentation. Take “Dead Horse,” a sharply honest tune about Williams’ traumatic divorce. Here a tune filled with jubilant energy serves as a way for Williams to deal with her melancholy. Over a bright pop riff she sings “Oh I stayed with you too long/Skipping like a record, but I sang along/To a silly little song.” “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris,” a five minute manifesto on the relativity of beauty, is another highlight. Over an ethereal acoustic passage, Williams challenges conventional standards of attractiveness, singing “I have seen your body/And I have seen your beauty/They are separate things.” This empowering message is sustained throughout this well-crafted song; it is a memorably slow and gentle journey.
Another impressive part of Petals for Armor is the development of Williams’ vocal range. She had a powerful voice in her Paramore days, but on this album she’s pulled back, refining her craft. This use of restraint adds range, nuance, and emotional depth to her performances. Take “Sudden Desire,” a fiery love song in which she deftly rises from a sultry whisper to full-on belting. The tune is a controlled ode to impulsiveness. Elsewhere, on “Creepin’” her voice starts off as fragile and then becomes full-bodied and dismissive when she sings “Why you creepin’ round here.” The tune is an acidic jab at parasitic followers and toxic friends, too well balanced to turn into a rant.
If the album has any major weaknesses it would be its length. This project contains fifteen tracks and, while none of them are wholly unsatisfying, Williams’ seems to have run out of ideas towards the back half of the record. These songs feel a bit bland after what came before — they are buried back in the track list for a reason. “Taken”‘s funky back-beat doesn’t make the song any less functional, a reminder of earlier and better tunes on the album. The closer, “Crystal Clear,” suffers from a similar fate; the rhythmic synths and backing drums come off as monotonous here.
A solo debut recording is particularly challenging if it comes after a career with a very successful band. Expectations are high (from fans and critics) regarding what a performer could — or should — do. Thankfully, Williams has defied expectations in all the right ways. Her forays into a diverse range of pop sounds are fresh and exciting while the vulnerability and introspection expressed in her lyrics add welcome depth. Williams’ inventiveness may run out before its conclusion, but there is more than enough brilliance here to make Petals for Armour an album to admire.
Alex Szeptycki is a student from Charlottesville, Virginia, currently studying at Stanford University. He is majoring in American Studies, with a focus in Contemporary Art and Media. He is currently finishing up his senior year, before looking to pursue a career in writing or the arts.