Hayley Williams’ solo debut ‘Petals For Armor’ is an art pop triumph – review
Paramore were already long-established as a top tier band in the mid/late 2000s pop punk/emo world, but as a lot of their peers became nostalgia acts, Paramore reinvented themselves and became a force within the modern-day indie rock and alt-pop scenes with the new wavey pop of 2017's After Laughter. Their classic material continues to be recognized as influential on plenty of today's zeitgeist-dominating acts, and After Laughter continues to be received as an album that's as relevant and forward-thinking as the newer artists defining today's sound. (We weren't the only ones who recently named it one of the best albums of the decade.) After Laughter came over a decade after Paramore's early breakthrough singles, and it might've looked like the culmination of a lengthy career, but for Hayley Williams, it seems like it was only the beginning.
After Laughter was a noticeable departure for Paramore, but Hayley's debut solo album Petals For Armor finds her pushing her sound even further away from the band's roots, and in so many different directions. After Laughter wasn't pop punk or emo, but it still shared some traits with classic Paramore, especially when it came to the way Hayley belted the record's stadium-sized choruses. On Petals For Armor, Hayley experiments with her voice in all kinds of new ways, and the classic Paramore style is one approach she almost never takes. And while Paramore albums usually tend towards one unified sound, Petals For Armor is like a collage of every idea Hayley has wanted to try and never has before. For the most part, she succeeds at all of them.
Given how many different ideas she stuffs into this album, it makes sense that she decided to roll out Petals For Armor as a series of EPs. It's 15 tracks total, but only five of those songs are actually being first released today. The other ten have been out for at least a few weeks; some songs have been out for nearly five months. It might've been overwhelming if Hayley put all or most of this music out at once; the gradual release made it so we got introduced to a different side of Petals For Armor every few weeks (or sometimes every few days), and this process really worked to her benefit. Each new song drop felt like its own mini event, and now hearing Petals For Armor as one album feels like binging a show you love that you also watched while it aired. If you've been keeping up with the rollout, songs like "Simmer" and "Cinnamon" already feel like classics, while songs like "Pure Love" and "Sugar On The Rim" continue to introduce even more new sides of Hayley Williams that she didn't display on any of the ten pre-release songs. The songs all flow together well in the context of the full Petals For Armor, but still, it almost feels wrong to refer to it as an "album" in the traditional sense. It almost feels more like a compilation, or like how Drake once referred to one of his projects as a "playlist." And that's not a negative thing; it's just another example of how artists are reinventing what it means to make an "album" in the streaming age. Between the way Petals For Armor was rolled out and the way it's structured, it feels like the latest success story in the constantly-evolving realm of the ways in which music is released to the public.
Even trying to review this project now as one album feels like trying to fit Petals For Armor's square peg into the round hole of traditional album reviews. But at the same time -- like In Rainbows and Beyonce and all the other innovative album drops -- one day the method of releasing Petals For Armor will become a piece of history but the album itself will live on as a whole, and will continue to get consumed by new fans who didn't experience the album rollout firsthand. And I think it's safe to assume that this album will keep reaching new audiences, given how much of a triumph it is for Hayley.
As longtime Paramore fans probably know, Hayley was signed to Atlantic as a 14-year-old in 2003 and the label originally wanted her to be a solo pop singer, but Hayley insisted on being part of a punk band. Hayley got what she wanted, Paramore signed to the Atlantic-distributed punk/emo label Fueled By Ramen, and the rest was history. Since day one there was a very real possibility that Hayley Williams could be a pop star, so it's kind of a big deal that her debut solo album is almost the exact opposite of "going pop." A handful of these songs find Hayley at her most experimental, like the Kid A-meets-Kate Bush art pop of album opener/lead single "Simmer," the erratic psychedelia of "Cinnamon," the haunting Queen-meets-Timbaland funk of "Creepin'," the Bjork-like "Sudden Desire," the somber indie/art rock of "My Friend," the jazz-pop of "Taken," the New Order-like drive of "Sugar On The Rim," and the atmospheric dream pop of "Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris" (which features boygenius, aka Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus - just another example of Hayley crossing paths with the current indie rock scene). This is nothin' for the radio, but they'll still play it though, 'cause it's that new Hayley Williams.
Not only does Petals For Armor sound like a passion project that might not have made sense as a Paramore album, these are also some of her most personal songs yet. Not that Paramore songs aren't personal, but you really get the sense that Hayley is allowing her deepest, innermost thoughts to come to the forefront of these songs in a way that she didn't always do in Paramore. The songs can sound like journal entries, letters, and conversations, and as on After Laughter, these are almost always songs you can nod your head and hum along to even when Hayley's lyricism is at its most depressing. That's no clearer than on "Dead Horse" -- the most After Laughter-like song on Petals For Armor -- a reggae-pop song so fun, bouncy, and upbeat that Hayley was almost afraid to include it on the album, but also a song about the betrayals that led to her divorce.
Even when Petals For Armor sounds poppy like it does on "Dead Horse," it still never sounds "pop" in the current Top 40 sense. "Pure Love" echoes Prince and Madonna and other timeless, fashionable '80s pop in the way that tons of today's indie/alternative music does, "Over Yet" sounds like Body Talk-era Robyn, and the silky smooth "Why We Ever" recalls Sade. The combination of these more widely accessible moments with the more drastically out-there stuff like "Simmer" is what makes the overall world of Petals For Armor so unique. It brings together musical influences from all across the board, and it presents them in a way that mirrors the "I listen to everything" approach that has become increasingly common thanks to the accessibility of music on the internet. It takes cues from the past but -- from the album rollout to the collage of influences to the social media-era honesty in the lyrics -- music rarely gets more right now than this.
Petals For Armor is out now on Atlantic. Stream it and watch some videos from the album below, including the just-released "Dead Horse" video.