Songs of Perpetual Self-Discovery

Hayley Williams, Petals for Armor (2020)

Hayley Williams’s Petals for Armor, out since May, is a spiky art-pop conundrum. After progressing for years toward sharper electronic textures, the Paramore singer-songwriter finally abandoned her rock beat. These songs abrade and whisper, delighting in sparse electronic dissonance. Unlike many solo debuts, it’s not a jumble; the album moves as a bent whole.

With Paramore, Williams took emo to weird, imaginative places. One of the few 2000s emo bands that persisted throughout the following decade, despite occasional personnel changes and recalibrations, the band discovered that adulthood didn’t make emo’s characteristic adolescent anxiety go away. Throughout the decade, Williams offered lessons in how to retain one’s natural camp melodrama despite whatever life throws at you. She undid conventional notions of maturity at every turn, instead enacting adult gestures with a comical overstatement that felt true (this tension is the subject of their greatest hit, “Ain’t It Fun”).

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While continuing to rock, they gradually expanded their style in concomitant ways, as the best songs on Paramore (2013) and the entirety of the lustrous After Laughter (2017) drape keyboard glitz, trebly rhythm guitar licks, and synthesized xylophones over their anthemic roar. Each album was lighter and more focused than the last.

Intricate, often diaphanous, Petals for Armor is lighter still. While it shares a fizzy keyboard palette with After Laughter, it lacks the tight song structures and loud choruses that characterize Paramore songs, and the residual power-pop elements have melted away. Although produced by Paramore guitarist Taylor York, it still sounds like a solo album, not because these songs are any more “personal” but because she’s free from a band’s organizing principles and testing the limits of form.

Influenced by current fashions in experimental pop but shaping its crawling tension into something recognizably hers, Petals for Armor casts spooky digital shadows. The skeletal, twitchy beats take a while to settle in your ear. “Creepin’” moves cautiously over muted guitar chords and pittering drums, as she whispers the verses to a fluttering multitude of background sighs; only her raw voice on the refrain (“Why you creepin’ round here?”) is turned up loud, bleeding onto the other instruments, as if her microphone were malfunctioning. Initially a jump scare, her vocal scratches eventually become a hook. The thwacking drums and disjointed synthesizer groove on “Cinnamon” seem to demand an equally blunt singer; instead, she sings in a quaver about the pleasures of interiority (“Home is where I’m feminine/smells like citrus and cinnamon”), juxtaposing the harsh and the delicate.

Paramore, After Laughter (2017)

These songs creak and shiver, enriched rather than undercut by the hooks she sneaks in. However stark the arrangements, Williams continues to write catchy songs. No Paramore song shimmies as adeptly as “Sugar on the Rim”: over a sinuous knot of clacking electronic percussion and thumping house bass, the restrained verses swell into an ecstatic dance-pop chorus, but not with regularity; the beat keeps winding up and down, interrupted by gaps, dynamic shifts in volume, and her deadpan reciting of the song’s title, sometimes through a squishy vocoder. Too uneven to work as a pop single, “Sugar on the Rim” bounces at skewed angles.

By contrast, opener and lead single “Simmer” is totally seamless — assorted synth jitters, electronic heartbeats, and precisely timed exclamations all surge and recede without letting up, producing a decorative rhythmic patchwork over the pounding main beat. From the song’s variegated surface springs a coiled, kinetic energy.

Lyrically, these are her most conventional songs in over a decade: as often happens with solo debuts, she therapeutically examines her emotions (repeatedly comparing herself to a blossoming flower). Supposedly, she’s taking the next step in her maturity progression: having embraced adulthood with Paramore — however ambivalently — she now advances to full self-actualization. But few flowers could blossom over music so harsh and protean. Williams’s electronic contortions on Petals for Armor remind me of Fiona Apple’s recent Fetch the Bolt Cutters, which assembles a similarly frayed acoustic surface. These albums establish overarching metaphors for liberation and empowerment (“Fetch the bolt cutters,” “Watch me while I bloom”), and they find that liberation in jagged rhythm.

Spare, restrained music that centers a singer’s swooping voice is often about the singer constructing an ideal self, measuring her distance from that ideal, and interrogating the ideal and the reality. Much experimental pop in this vein collapses into an attenuated hall of mirrors (the vocal exercises of FKA Twigs, say). The mutable weirdness of Petals for Armor refutes that dynamic, because the music doesn’t let Williams be; it keeps changing and adjusting itself, glitching out and interrupting her. It’s playful.

Rather than self-examination, this is music of perpetual self-discovery, lending poignancy to the lyrics. “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris” achieves a marvelous camp solemnity as it exploits a long poetic history that links floral imagery and female sexuality: gliding over limpid rhythm guitar and watery string arrangements, the song reads like a meditation, but Williams can’t hide the humor; when she sings “Think of all the wilted women/who crane their necks to reach a window/ripping all their petals off, just cause he loves me now, he loves me not,” the silliness makes her pathos more affective (Stevie Nicks haunts these lines). And “Sudden Desire” is as awkward and enthusiastic as actual sudden desire — clumsily, the abrupt desperation of the chorus totally overtakes the rest of the song before settling back down again, as her gawky poetry (“I wanted him to kiss me/How? With open mouth”) captures the scale of her yearning.

Petals for Armor is an almost old-fashioned solo debut, one where the artist trades a band’s formal command for the subtler pleasures of playing with light and color, coherence be damned. Yet it coheres anyway: quietly, with dissonant beauty.


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