Monday, May 15, 2017

album review: 'after laughter' by paramore

I think somebody needs to explain to me what is the hype behind Paramore - because the more I listen to their material, the less I'm seeing it.

That's not saying they're bad - their first three records are a respectable slice of emo-leaning pop rock, with Riot! probably being the best of them, but even then I was never really wowed by the writing or the performances or the production - good music, sure, but nothing I'd actively seek out or that I thought stood out against the rest of the pop rock boom. Then there was the self-titled album in 2013 that I actually reviewed for a year-end anniversary, an album released after the lead guitarist and drummer quit... and again, for mid-2010s pop rock released on Fueled by Ramen, it certainly checked off the boxes, but I did not understand all the critical acclaim that was piled on that record. There were a few catchy singles, sure, and Hayley Williams' brand of colorful theatrics had its moments - helped by self-aware songwriting that was getting better - but at the end of the day I was lukewarm on the project at best, and I have not had any inclination to revisit that album since.

So I wasn't remotely surprised when they decided to pivot towards retro-new wave for their newest record - sure, their bassist was now gone, but producer Justin Mendel-Johnsen was filling in and they actually got their old drummer Zac Farro back. Hell, I wasn't even surprised by the change in direction - punk acts have gone new wave to stay relevant since the late 70s, this is not new. What did catch my attention was the emphasis on how trying this recording session apparently was, and how much that struggle had translated into the rather dark themes contrasting with the brighter instrumentation - again, this isn't new, but as a more polished spin on their emo-leaning lyrics in the past it could make for an interesting listen, so how does After Laughter turn out?

Honestly, this is one of those projects that while I can respect most of its thematic arc and structure, it's not really one that sticks with me on execution. Which yes, might as well be the tagline to any comments I've made on Paramore, but After Laughter is arguably the most straightforward album that they've ever assembled and also - to some extent - their most honest. The big question comes in whether that honesty is leveraged effectively, which is a more complicated question.

And to start we have to begin with Hayley Williams, who really is the reason that anyone cares about Paramore - hardcore fans, calm down, even if she doesn't want to admit it, it's definitely a sentiment that runs through the music industry, the vast majority of listeners, and a fair few disgruntled ex-bandmates, one who sued over the issue. But the deeper truth is that she's arguably bringing the most to the table as a songwriter and performer - the spiky guitar lines and drum grooves are solid, sure, but she's the frontwoman and more than ever this feels like her story. And yet longtime fans will undoubtedly pick up on how she's not exactly as vibrant or aggressive as she was on previous albums - where she does seem to get a little more manic, it bears the sign of instability as her voice cracks, especially on 'Idle Worship'. And credit to her, this album puts her through the emotional paces and she really does deliver - not exactly with a lot of subtlety, but there is weariness and raw emotion in her delivery. 

And yeah, it's hard not to ignore how much this record gains through carefully multi-tracked hooks on songs like 'Rose-Colored Boy', 'Fake Happy', and especially 'Pool' that almost sound like something out of a mid-2000s Hilary Duff album - and this is coming from someone who owns those albums, and I'd consider it more of a feature than a flaw. It does feel a little odd against the production, though, which has entirely embraced a glossy new wave bounce full of full bass, jittery guitarwork, and drumwork that's on the edge of exploding but never quite hitting there. And since it's a Justin Mendel-Johnsen production, it simultaneously throws a fair number of quirky effects, synth tones, and elements that contribute to the melody but can also feel a little distracting to an otherwise solid core, like the marimba on 'Hard Times' or the chime-like bells on 'Pool', or that fizzy synth on 'Caught In The Middle', or the inclusion of Aaron Weiss' rambling, self-referential and yet buried vocals on 'No Friend' that might have worked better if they were supplementing Williams instead of replacing her - or indeed, if you could hear most of them at all! But that avoids the real underlying issue for a lot of the production, namely that for all of the slick new wave style, it's not exactly colourful or full of the spark of energy that made Paramore's self-titled album at least stand out - and I'm convinced this is a conscious choice, because on the song celebrating the return of Zac Farro on 'Grudges', there is that brightness that cuts through the kooky guitar layers. And sure, I'm not averse to the group doing their best Shura impression on 'Forgiveness', it's one of the best songs here, but again, like Williams' delivery, something can't help but feel a little off, a little desaturated and lacking the same momentum.

And of course, if you dig into the lyrics, it was intentional, as this record makes it very plain that Hayley Williams is indeed going through at the very least sounds like anxiety and probably on some level has manifested as depression. And in a neat parallel between production and content, despite getting more garish it can't help but feel more and more like a pose. And on some level I like this: it gives songs like the hesitant reconciliation of 'Forgiveness' some weight, or the snaps against patronizing optimism on 'Rose Colored Boy' some real teeth, or the mingled blend of fear and insecurity that run through 'Idle Worship' as she confronts fans and tells them she is the furthest thing from what they want to emulate. Which, paradoxically, will likely make her even more beloved, something that Aaron Weiss calls out on 'No Friend' as he plainly says how the band will market off of this relatability, even while he is grateful... which is a level of cold cynicism that doesn't really gel with how earnest and vulnerable the rest of the record is trying to be. Granted, sometimes that earnestness can bite Williams, like on 'Fake Happy', which despite its self-awareness still is a song trying to call out people around her for faking happiness... with a big sing-a-long chorus. I found '26' to be much more intriguing, intended as a message to her more cynical younger self who had advocated to stay grounded, whereas now she wishes to hold onto those dreams given her lowpoint now - and sure, the composition can feel a tad schmaltzy, but the sentiment resonates. Where it doesn't resonate is on the final song 'Tell Me How', which is mostly focused on the losses of bandmates and confusion on how she should feel about it, which mostly works as it hangs the open question... up until the outro, where she says she knows those ex-bandmates are going to be thinking about her and she believes there's something still there. And I get that it's supposed to feel sweet, a moment of light at the end of the tunnel, but between the instrumental tone and the delivery it feels like a magnanimous moment that doesn't match the tone of the rest of the writing... 

Which leads to my biggest issue with the album. I get that a record tilting towards this side of new wave isn't expected to be as overwritten as most emo - and you can make the argument Paramore never really inhabited that space completely - but more than ever the metaphors and language can feel increasingly pedestrian and flat. 'Told You So' and 'Caught In the Middle' are the most glaring in this case, but more often than not it feels reduced to a lower common denominator and accessible - which given how popular in indie pop a lot of the tones are on this album, especially towards the mainstream, can feel pretty cynical, and undercut how personal this record is trying to be. But in a strange way, this album hasn't really changed my impression of Paramore: a good band anchored in a potent lead performer that can go for good ideas but muddies the execution by catering to popular sounds and conventional lyrical tropes. Which yeah, makes for a good pop act and I'm happy they dropped the pretense that that this is the furthest thing from rock... but it's also not like I can't point to a half dozen other new wave-leaning acts right now who are doing this sound and similar themes better, and that's before we touch on the bands who were taking this sound to more interesting places thirty years ago. As such, I'm giving this a very strong 6/10 and a recommendation for fans, but otherwise... again, kind of lukewarm overall, I've definitely heard better, but there are good songs, and if you're curious... eh, worth a listen, check it out.

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