Album Review: Hayley Williams - Petals For Armor
During the exasperatingly long roll out to her debut solo album, Petals For Armor, did Hayley Williams (the front woman for the power pop outfit Paramore) ever imagine that lyrics she had written in 2018 and 2019—incredibly personal, reflective lyrics—would mirror a much larger situation?
“I’ve spent a while on the stranger side of your door,” she coos in the first verse of “Why We Ever,” buried within the album’s second half, it is also one of Petals For Armor’s finest, most devastating moments. “How do you sound? What do you look like now? I try to replicate our movements in my mind.” Then, later, “Tin-can telephone from my home to your home. I can’t feel your energy no more.”
One of the many reasons “Why We Ever” is a clear standout among the 15 tracks found on Petals For Armor is the sharp turn it takes about two minutes in. As it does, it shifts from its somber slink into something sparse, and even more somber, with Williams playing an old, creaking piano, quietly singing over the top of it until a drum machine groove comes filing back in. “I spent the weekend at home again,” she reflects. “Drawing circles on the floor. Tried to keep myself from hurting—I don’t know why anymore.”
Did Hayley Williams ever imagine that incredibly personal, reflective lyrics she had written would be a literal mirror to a much larger situation?
Announced within the first month of the year, the roll out for Petals For Armor has been so exhaustive, that it seems like the album should already have been released long before now—and, really, two-thirds of it was; following the announcement of Petals For Armor, Williams began releasing single after single, then collecting them in batches of five as digital EPs, or at least she did this with the first 10 tracks—releasing them in February and April, respectively.
And maybe that’s the way the album is intended to be consumed—a rather lengthy 15 tracks total, Petals For Armor, as a whole, is available on both CD and a double LP, or, if you have the patience to wait one more month, it is also being released as a special, limited edition set of three 10” LPs—presumably five songs per record, mirroring the way Williams was initially releasing the songs into the world.
Immersive and consuming, the rollout for Petals For Armor is a reflection of the music found on it—no matter how you opt to listen to it. It’s an album that finds Williams as a singer and songwriter maturing and becoming comfortable with who she is an adult, but it also finds her restless, and unwilling to be pinned down to what a solo album from the lead singer of Paramore should sound like. Impossible to pigeonholed into a specific sound, or aesthetic, Petals For Armor shifts continuously from beginning to end, through slithering electronic rhythms, nostalgic, 80s inspired pop, moody, and guitar driven ‘alternative’ rock; the thing that holds the album together, though, is Williams’ knack for enormous, infectious songwriting.
Petals For Armor is also held together, tightly, by both how intensely personal it can be; in the same breath, it’s also wildly ambiguous and shadowy—both devices making for a record that, yes, can test your patience at times, but is very, very urgent and uncompromising in just how compelling it can be.
“What is this?,” my wife asked the other day, walking past me while I sat at the dining room table with something vaguely power-poppy blaring from the laptop speakers.
“This is Paramore,” I said, then I pointed to the screen, and the Spotify playlist I was listening to—aptly titled “This is Paramore.”
Hayley Williams was 16 years old when she co-founded the power-pop group, and a year later, Paramore released its first full-length, All We Know is Falling; the album’s Wikipedia labels it a ‘scene classic’ amongst the genres it teeters between, but the group really broke through in 2007 with the release of Riot!, the album containing the only Paramore song that I knowingly (up until the other day) had listened to—“That’s What You Get.”
My wife and I never really got into video games the way some people do. But for awhile, well over a decade ago, we had a group of friends that really liked video games—specifically, because it was the late 2000s—they were all into the Rock Band series. And I can remember countless hours in somebody’s living room, holding onto a fake plastic bass or guitar, staring at the ‘notes’ passing me by on the television, ‘playing’ along to “That’s What You Get,” which, at the time, was just another song that I had to play along to, usually set on ‘easy’ since I was always very terrible at those games.
I guess, at the time, I saw the draw, since “That’s What You Get” is infectious—it still is. When it came up on my “This is Paramore” playlist, I instantly acknowledged that it is, in fact, a bop, and that Williams, even in her very, very early 20s, could write a bop—that fact hasn’t changed. Now 32, with Paramore not so much on hiatus, but after years of lineup changes (apparently no one Paramore album has the same lineup of players), the group has been set aside following the extensive tour in support of its 2017 album, After The Laughter, and Petals For Armor finds Williams turning very inward, reflecting and ruminating on countless themes—her divorce, as well as her ongoing mental health struggles, are among the two that run throughout a bulk of the album.
The word ‘rage’ is the first word Williams sings on Petals For Armor, found in the glitchy, bass-heavy, slithering opening track, “Simmer.”
It’s also the first word listed in a long line of emotions, or concepts, that are written out on the mock-ups of the record sleeves for the 3xLP version of Petals For Armor—other words found along with it include grief, mercilessness, femininity, fear, intimacy, healing, redemption, and acceptance.
“Rage is a quiet thing,” she sings, with a voice that sounds like it is barely holding back a torrent of anger. “You think you’ve tamed it, but it’s just lying in wait.”
“Simmer,” as the opening track to the album, as a whole, wastes no time in pulling you into the swirling, kaleidoscopic, frenetic world that Williams creates with Petals For Armor. It’s a volatile track, propelled forward by a surprisingly strong groove from the bass and crisp percussion—surprising, only, because it’s the kind of song that, musically, makes you writhe around; lyrically, it’s a stark look inside for both Williams and her listeners, especially when she gets into the song’s second verse, which she explained in a Pitchfork interview, comes from her work in therapy, and exploring her family history, and her family trauma.
Like so many of the songs on Petals For Armor, Williams asks a lot of questions, but provides no easy answers—and maybe a lot of the ideas found within the album are the kind of thing that there really are no answers for. The question that lingers at the end of “Simmer” is a big one: “How to draw the line between wrath mercy?”
The restless nature, musically, of Petals For Armor is apparent right away. While “Simmer” relies on a quick, slithering tempo and usage of vocal manipulations and other effects, there’s a near day and night difference between that and “Leave it Alone,” the slow burning second track.
I hate to use this as a reference point, because there is a part of me that feels regular usage of comparisons in music writing is lazy, however, I can’t help that among my first listens of Petals For Armor, and specifically of the back to back “Simmer” and “Leave it Alone,” musically, the place I went to almost immediately was Thom Yorke, and Radiohead, respectively.
Maybe it’s when anyone uses glitchy, slithering electronics, I think of the grooves that Yorke buried within his solo work like The Eraser or even on last year’s mildly underrated Anima (I know I partially slept on that album for sure); or maybe, in the case of the slow motion, swooning that happens within the song’s more ‘traditional’ instrumentation, “Leave it Alone,” among the gently strummed guitar, simply bass accompaniment, and mildly reserved percussion keeping time, it sounds slightly like A Moon Shaped Pool-era Radiohead, like when you can tell that the band is really five guys in a space together, with instruments, and not one person with a few laptops and keyboards.
Lyrically, and thematically, “Leave it Alone” is no less serious than the family trauma Williams explored on “Simmer.” “Don’t nobody tell me that god don’t have a sense of humor,” she begins. “Now that I want to live, well, everybody around me is dying.” Then, shortly after that—“Become friends with then noose that I made and I keep tryin’ to untie it. Make it into something useful, or maybe hang it through a window pane; turn it into a fire escape.”
I hesitate to say that Petals For Armor is Williams’ therapy sessions set to music, but at times, there is a lot to unpack within these songs. The sparse, shuffling nature of the arranging on “Leave it Alone” makes it so it’s impossible not to really focus on the starkness of the lyrics. Written partially about her grandmother, who suffered a traumatic brain injury on her 80th birthday.
“You don’t remember my name somedays, or that we’re related,” she continues. “It triggers my worry—who else am I gonna lose before I am ready?”
And, again, here Williams asks another loaded question with no real answer: “Who’s gonna lose me?”
The thing about an album this long (15 songs is, like, welcomed, but also kind of a lot in this era) and released in such a disjointed way is that, yes, there is a cohesive feeling from beginning to end, though at some points, maybe the album doesn’t so much lose its connectivity, or the through lines of recurring themes, but it does lose a little steam; or, there are just songs that are slightly less successful in their execution.
That unevenness arrives mostly within the final third of Petals For Armor, but it does begin to show itself a little in the beginning—a little with the glitchy bombast of “Cinnamon,” and a lot with the trudging “Creepin’,” both of which finds Williams playing with the pitch of her vocals through manipulation, and the latter of which finds her singing about metaphorical vampires—a thematic element that doesn’t exactly resonate as strongly as the reflection on trauma found within the first two songs.
It is also as the album expands that Williams begins to steer things, at times, into the glistening, shimmering 1980s inspired pop music that Paramore, eventually, found their way into as well—you can hear it in the neon bright refrain of “Over Yet”—the saving grace for that song, really, because save for when it shifts up into those glittery moments within the song, it’s another one that is not as successful as the others, based around a bouncing, scuzzed out bass line and rhythm that, for me, just doesn’t work.
On the other hand, though, what does work is the crisp funk and enormous, synthesizer twinkling on “Pure Love,” another 80s inspired track that kicks off the album’s final third (and, I guess, the ‘third part’ to Petals For Armor if you are looking at it as three EPs.) Beginning with a little snicker from Williams, “Pure Love” is one of the many bass-heavy songs on Petals For Armor—Paramore’s bassist Joey Howard is responsible for that, as well as co-writing eight of the album’s songs. And maybe because I spent so much time listening to Future Nostalgia, especially with headphones, and through that, really came to pay attention to and appreciate the detail of a rollicking, funked out bass line—but in immersing myself in Petals For Armor for so long—both with the first two EPs, as well as the album proper—this, too, I have found, is a very bass driven album at times—details that are important to hear within the album’s complicated arranging.
At this point, you are, maybe, asking yourself, how did we get here? Or, I guess, how did I, the person writing this piece, get here?
What ‘here’ are we talking about though—is it the ‘here’ or 2,100 words and counting into an album review, or is it the ‘here’ or being this interested in the solo album from the dynamic front woman of a band that I had, admittedly, not listened to or taken much of an interest in until very, very recently?
Or is the ‘here’ both of those place?
We’re here partially because of Hanif Abdurraqib—the cultural critic and poet, who often shares his thoughts and love of power pop via social media, and has talked about Paramore, as well as some of the early singles off of Petals For Armor.
I’d like to think that, maybe, because I am (mostly) open to listening to and the possibility of enjoying myriad genres of music, there is a chance I could have found my way to Petals For Armor on my own; however, we are also partially here because of Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridgers, and Julien Baker.
The trio, all well respected solo singers and songwriters, formed a trio in 2018 named boy genius—and that’s how they are credited with the backup vocals they provide on the dizzying, hypnotic “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris,” which is by far one of the most outstanding songs included on the record.
Tucked late in the album’s second ‘part,’ musically, “Roses” reconnects with the guitar driven, or more traditional ‘rock' instrumentation found earlier on “Leave it Alone.” Here, though, it doesn’t so much simmer as it burns with clear, grand, swooning intent.
Part of what makes “Roses” so hypnotic, and a little mysterious, aside from the way the title of the song is presented, is the way the words overlap and circle in the refrain. “Roses…show no concern for colors of a violet; Lotus hopes it won’t spark envy in your iris,” the song’s mantra-like chorus oscillates, with Bridgers, Dacus, and Baker providing haunting back up vocals, repeating the words “Roses” and “Lotus,” with a slightly ethereal affect that pulls you further and further into the slinking, swooning groove.
The song, itself, Williams describes as a something poetically written about being a woman, and relating to other women, specifically within the music industry, where women are famously pitted against one another. Here, she returns to some of the imagery found in “Simmer,” but pushes it further: “But I am in a garden, tending to my own. So what do I care, and what do you care if I grow?,” she asks in the song’s first verse; then, in the song’s second verse, continues to expand the conceit—“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.’”
Then, a little heavy handed, but still no less impactful, Williams and boy genius together, with their vocals pitch shifted down, say, “I myself was a wilted woman, drowsy in a dark room. Forgot my roots—now watch me bloom.”
The vegan and animal rights enthusiast in me hates the song “Dead Horse,” but only because of its tone deaf title, and the as, if not more, tone deaf lyric, “I beat it like a dead horse.”
But I get it—it’s an idiom (a tactless one, at that) Williams uses on one of the more bombastically pop-oriented tracks, sandwiched in where the second half of Petals For Armor starts.
Williams’ confrontation of her own mental health struggles, and the work she’s done in therapy, run throughout the album, but “Dead Horse” is where it’s most apparent. The song begins with a snipped of a voice note sent to co-writer and co-producer of the song, Daniel James. “Alright, it took me three days to send this to you. Sorry—I was in a depression. But I’m trying to come out of it now,” it begins, before the song actually ‘starts.’
And truthfully, she had me at ‘I was in a depression,’ and I was willing to look past the crassness of the song’s title and titular lyric. There is, and maybe this far into a review of a pop album is not the place to really unpack this, but there is a different, or at least a distinction, between being depressed, and being ‘in a depression’ as she puts it. And yes, you can be depressed—like, living with depression day in and day out, where it’s always there and you’re just, like, trying to stay a few steps ahead of it; then here’s being 'in a depression,’ which, from what I am getting from her inability to send the song’s co-writer something relating to the song for three days, and from my own experiences—being ‘in a depression’ is where everything is much, much worse.
“Dead Horse,” despite the name that I recoil at every time I hear, or type out, is probably the most cleverly arranged and written song on Petals For Armor, simply because of the way it juxtaposes a wildly upbeat, pop driven sound against very stark, brutally honest lyrics. While Petals For Armor is not a ‘divorce’ album, there are songs on it about her divorce, and her marriage ending did serve as a partial impetus for the album in the first place. “Dead Horse,” though, is an unflinching look at Williams’ past relationship—“Every morning I wake up from a dream of you holding me,” then, she takes pause and adds “Underwater….is that a dream or a memory?”
She also confronts the tumultuous beginning, and ending, of her partnership and marriage—it began as an affair (“I got what I deserved; I was the other woman first”) and ended, in part, to his infidelities during their relationship.
The song’s infectious refrain is, though, where it’s the most blunt—“I beat it like a dead horse, I beat it like a drum—I stayed with you too long…skipping like a record, but I sang along to your shitty little song.”
I spent the weekend at home again, drawing circles on the floor.
Tried to keep myself from hurting—I don’t know why anymore.
Did Hayley Williams ever imagine that lyrics she had written in 2018 and 2019—incredibly personal, reflective lyrics—would mirror a much larger situation?
The most outstanding moment on Petals For Armor, and more than likely one of the finest songs of the year, arrives in the form of “Why We Ever”—the album’s shape shifting tenth track, closing out the second ‘part’ to the record.
Musically, there are thee, well, four actually, motifs that run through “Why We Ever,” with Williams switching between reserved, somber tension in the song’s verses, then switching up to a bass prominent, slinking groove for the refrain, with some shimmering 80s vibes thrown in too. The final direction the song takes, though, is what really makes it—when it abruptly shifts out of the glossy, but sad pop, and finds Williams plunking out a sad, haunting melody on an ancient sounding piano; all before a drum machine groove comes tumbling in to fill out the rhythm until the end.
Thematically, and lyrically, “Why We Ever” isn’t dressed up in any kind of heavy metaphor; no, it’s relatively straight forward. “Ever try to sabotage the best thing? Yeah, me neither,” she said on social media, w/r/t the song. And yes, now, living in the time of a pandemic that requires social distancing, the lyrics provide an eerily accurate mirror to the spaces growing between yourself and those you care about. However, it is more of a reflection on the hurt that lingers when a relationship is over, and the frustration and confusion that comes when things haven’t worked out, and are possibly beyond repair.
There’s no resolve, though, in “Why We Ever,” which is one of the reasons that it haunts for so long after you’ve finished listening. Like a desperate incantation, over the conclusion of the song, Williams repeats these lyrics: “I just want to talk about it, I know I freaked you out. I just want to talk about it—sorry for freaking out.” And it’s the ‘it,’ that is unanswered, and the conversation that won’t be had, that leaves me with an uneasy, heartbroken feeling, and makes “Why We Ever” such a powerful moment on the album, and for Williams as a songwriter—capable of weaving a narrative through different movements, and leaving so much of it unfinished and open to speculation.
There is also no clear resolve as Petals For Armor comes to its end. Its final track, “Crystal Clear,” is one of a nervous hope—musically bouncy, Williams proclaims in the song’s first verse: “I wanna make it crystal clear that I won’t give into the fear,” which gives it a triumphant feeling, though by the end, there is some uncertainty.
The song ends with the interpolation of her grandfather, Rusty Williams, playing a song he wrote but never recorded named “Friends or Lovers,” lifted from a cell phone video Williams had taken of her grandfather without his knowledge. The inclusion of her grandfather’s song is buried pretty deep into the mix, chopped up and inserted into her own lyrics, so it’s a little difficult to hear it at first, though the idea provides and interesting bit of overlap, and leaves an unanswered, lingering question as the final thing heard before the album ends: “I’m still right here…friends or lovers—which will it be?”
Petals For Armor is, in a word, ambitious. It never buckles under the weight of its own ambitions, but it does falter at times due to its restless and uneven nature.
The final word listed on the mock up of the artwork for the 3xLP edition of Petals For Armor is ‘acceptance,’ and even though there is no clear resolution or answers found as the album ends, Williams has used this album, in all its sprawling, shifting nature, as a means of discovery, growth, catharsis, and yes, in the end, acceptance—acceptance of who she was, who she is, and who she will be in the future, both as a solo artist, and still as the leader of her beloved band. There are times when Petals For Armor is, lyrically, not for the faint of heart, and there are times that, even when it shimmers within all of its enormous pop glory, does make you confront parts of yourself you may not be ready to face yet. It does all of this, and more, while almost always remaining accessible and welcoming into its many layers.
Even when it doesn’t work, Petals For Armor is a bold, fearless statement that’s completely worth the effort, and becomes more enjoyable, and more personally cathartic, the more time you spend with it, unpacking all of its complexities.
Petals For Armor is out now on CD, cassettes, standard 2xLP, and as a digital download, via Atlantic. The 3xLP special edition will arrive in June.