Album Review: Hayley Williams - Flowers for Vases/descansos
Time moves slow, I just talk to myself
I finish my own sentences, the way you used to…
Nobody’s 2020 went as planned. Whether you are a regular person, like me, or a performer or musician who attempted to release an album and had intended to tour in support of it—plans changed; at times, drastically. But whether you are a regular person, like me, or a performer or musician, you had to figure out a way to adapt, and keep it moving the best you could in any given moment.
The roll-out was ambitious, and long gestating, which I think was intentional, even before the shadow of the pandemic began to loom. Announced at the very beginning of 2020, Petals for Armor, the debut solo effort from Paramore founder and frontwoman Hayley Williams, arrived five months later, mildly scathed by the way the world had already been altered, full of lyrics that, written well in advance of the times we found ourselves in, took on eerie, reflective new1 meanings.
A sprawling, sonically restless affair, Petals found Williams, even though it was billed as a solo album, still collaborating closely with a small group of players, many of whom are credited as co-writers on a number of the songs—but it was Williams, alone, who was left to try and promote the record through interviews conducted via Zoom; it was Williams who eventually had to cancel the planned tour in support of the record.
It was Williams, living alone in her Tennessee home, presumably wondering what to focus her creative energies and efforts on next.
More or less recorded in ‘secret,’ she explained that Flowers for Vases/descansos is not a proper follow up to Petals for Armor, but that it is a ‘detour,’ written and recorded as a response to the isolation Williams found herself in—“2020 was really hard,” she said while announcing the project the day before it was released. “But I’m alive, and so my job is to keep living and help others do the same.”
Williams may call it a ‘detour,’ and that is accurate to some degree, but from the moment it begins, the word that came to mind immediately is ‘inverse’—at least in comparison to Petals for Armor. Even the title of the project, Flowers for Vases, is a sharp, somewhat jarring metaphorical juxtaposition to its predecessor, but that inverse and contrast is much more apparent in the album’s sonic landscape.
Petals was a restless, but robust and bombastic collection of songs—many of them drenched in slick, dense production and instrumentation. Flowers for Vases is just about as insular as you can get—with Williams solely credited as writer on each track and playing every instrument on the record, joined only by a producer and engineer.
Petals for Armor, at times, could be quite serious and even dark, but overall, musically, it kept things slinky and energetic. Flowers for Vases can be quite serious and even dark—and that’s it. There are few moments I’d refer to as slinky or energetic throughout Flowers; it is a beautiful, but harrowing statement and a stark reflection of not only what happens when we are left alone for a long period of time with our own intrusive thoughts, but what happens when make something out of them.
Why do memories glow the way the way real moments don’t?
Petals for Armor was not a ‘divorce record,’ but it was an opportunity for Williams to write more personally than what she writes for her work with Paramore—and the marriage to her longtime partner from the group New Found Glory, and their subsequent (and tumultuous) divorce found its way (albeit somewhat veiled) into a handful of the album’s lyrics.
Flowers for Vases is not a ‘divorce record’ either, but it is a series of songs that, perhaps due to self-induced isolation, could only be written when you can do this much rumination and reflection; or when you find yourself falling into the spaces that form in-between both of those things as you look at not only the people who have come and gone from your life, and why, but the places you are from, the place you hope to go, who you were, who you are, and who you hope you might be.
The album find Williams writing and reflection the most (or ruminating) on loss and longing—and she wastes no time throwing the listener into the space where these thoughts of her have been swirling for roughly the last year, and it’s those moments that, across the board, are the most successful, and most poignant.
There is nothing nearly as bombastic or technicolor in sound as some of the more rollicking material found on Petals for Armor; when she does include something that has a little more instrumentation to it, like the first ‘single2’ “My Limb,” it is infectious, yes, but it isn’t memorable in the same way the most insular songs on Flowers are—meaning it is not nearly as haunting.
“My Limb” stays with you because it’s catchy; songs like “How You Doing?,” or the opening track “First Thing to Go,” linger because they are heartbreaking and personal.
“First thing to do was the sound of his voice—it echoes still, I’m sure, but I can’t hear it,” she sings beautifully and somberly over a plaintively strummed acoustic guitar in the opening moments of “First Thing to Go.” Then, moving into the second verse—“Time move slow—I just talk to myself. I finish my own sentence the way you used to.”
“First Thing to Go,” is, in a sense, the thesis statement for the album, or at least where one of the larger ideas of Flowers for Vases are introduced. “I am scared to lose what’s left of you,” Williams confesses, in a fragile register, during the song’s refrain. And that’s it—the idea of memories, especially of a person, fading away slowly, is something that she continually returns to across the album.
That kind of concern is something she introduced within the song “Why We Ever,” on Petals for Armor, but it’s here that she takes that concept, and expounds on it with devastating results. “Over those hills, I bet you’re somewhere dreaming,” she sings wistfully on “Over Those Hills.” “I take my pills every night and in the morning—when you wake up, ever wish I was beside you?”
And, by the end, Williams takes that loss, and longing, and heads slightly toward a palpable desperation on the melancholic, gorgeous “No Use, I Just Do.” It, like a lot of the songs on Flowers, aren’t ‘sketches,’ but are intentionally left lyrically sparse, relying on repetition to build the world where the song exists. “Nobody wants to be alone, but that’s not why I want you,” she explains. “It’s no use…I just love you.”
In the songs that aren’t left lyrically sparse, or fragmented, Williams, as she displayed countless times throughout Petals for Armor, when she wants to, can really turn a surprising, cutting phrase—and with the reflective, ruminative nature of the album, the cutting phrases are also self-effacing. “All I ever had to say about love is a sad song,” she begins on the folk-leaning “Trigger.” “I get off on telling everybody what went wrong. It makes me feel like the paint had a purpose. Keeps me believing that maybe it’s worth it.”
Or, possibly the most stark self-reflection, from the similarly folk-tinged “Good Grief”—“And I’m pretty sure you don’t miss the way I put all my demons on display3…”
It is perhaps the nature of the album’s creation and it’s reflective, difficult lyrics that lend itself to the instrumentation Williams has chosen for a bulk of the songs, but Flowers for Vases is a predominantly delicate, skeletal affair in terms of arranging, with a lot of things structured around the acoustic guitar and piano, with washes of contemplative, ethereal synthesizers coming in underneath as slight punctuation, and while there are, truly, no ‘bad’ songs on the record, there are songs that are much more successful in their intent, and it’s the most skeletal, reflective, and brooding that are by far the most affecting.
Since there is such a difference in tonality between this record, and Petals for Amor, there are only a handful of moments here that would fit in her previous effort, or are assembled from using a similar musical fabric. The aforementioned “My Limb” slithers with a sonically rich in production sound and borderline sinister energy that is similar to the frenetic, writhing opening track from Petals, “Simmer.” There are two other songs that feature any real additional instrumentation—within the final minute of “Over Those Hills,” drums come in to keep a sharp, steady rhythm, alongside a searing, fuzzy guitar solo, and as “My Limb” feels like a slight continuation of “Simmer,” Flowers’ closing track, “Just a Lover,” trudges somberly and moodily, similarly to the Petals for Armor track, “Leave it Alone,” though here, the song eventually explodes with a fury and snarl of alternative rock angst and frustration as Williams howls, “Space and time, before I open my eyes, I feel my heart crack open.”
How your eyes are shut so you cannot see just how very close I keep you to me
There are few, if any, moments of humor on Flowers for Vases—not that Petals for Armor was a very light-hearted album either, though as it progressed, Williams steered certain tunes into glossy, dance-oriented pop territory that at least made parts of it slightly more fun (or less serious) to listen to.
Perhaps in an effort to break up the tension, and sadness, that radiates here, Williams begins the song “HYD” (How You Doing?) with a snippet of a home recording, presumably captured on her mobile phone while sitting outside, or near an open window, and she’s interrupted by the sound of an airplane taking off above her. The sound tearing through the background grows louder as she tries to pluck her way through the song’s chords, quietly singing the song’s lyrics as if almost just singing them to herself before she stops and says, “Are you fucking kidding me?” It’s a small, fleeting moment that both provides a reprieve from the heaviness throughout Flowers for Vases, as well as gives a very small glimpse into Williams’ creative process for preparing the record over the course of 2020.
“HYD” is one of two songs that are titled through usage of initials—“KYRH” arrives a few songs prior. Short for “Keep You Right Here,” it’s another song that focuses more on creating an atmosphere, and sustaining that for as long as it is able to, meditating on the phrase “Keep you right here,” while pools of distortion and ambiance ripple and swirl around the piano. However, it is “How You Doing” that is, without a doubt, the most emotionally impactful song on Flowers for Vases, and it is, perhaps, the most personal among the set.
It is, at least, for me, the most personally devastating. The one that made me, as so many songs do, feel ‘seen’ and ‘attacked.’
For roughly the last two years, I have thought about the idea of love an awful lot; specifically the different types of love, and the varying levels within each type. There is romantic love, and platonic love—but there is also the idea of being ‘in love’ with someone—like, unbeknownst to you, you don’t really love them, but you love the notion of them—the person you’ve imagined they are, and sometimes actually aren’t.
There is idea of simply loving someone for who they are, and who they were, and finding the appreciation and admiration without wanting them to be somebody they aren’t.
And there is a kind of closeness, and intimacy, that comes with each different type.
Flowers for Vases is an album that doesn’t deconstruct the idea of the ‘love song,’ but there is love, or a rumination and reflection on love, within and throughout because these songs have been written from a place where love once was, and where it still might be, as confusing and complicated as that might be.
“How You Doing?,” aside from being the most heartbreaking in its unabashed honesty, is a love song that blurs the line between platonic and romantic—an intentional trick that makes the song all the more compelling because of the ambiguity over who it might be about.
Williams chooses language that is evocative, yes, but it is also very accessible—the imagery of the song isn’t dressed up at all, but it still paints a vivid portrait to her narrative. “When the air is quiet and the sky is blue,” she begins. “I can’t help be reminded of you. How your eyes are shut so you cannot see just how very close I keep you to me.” And it’s here, and she does in each verse in the song, creates a sharp, surprising contrast with the line that arrives next—“And in that dark little place you have made, you’d swear all these pretty clouds are gray.”
The thing that resonates from beginning to end on Flowers for Vases is that it is a lonely album, or at least an album that is created from a lonely place—or at the very least, a place that is aching, and stuck in a fond remembrance of something that was once, but is no longer. “On a night like this, it’s just me and the kid4,” she sings in the song’s final verse. “And there’s a chair for you, where you’d always sit and we’d talk for hours about the dumbest shit.”
There is an intimacy in both romantic (obviously) and platonic love, and navigating that within the latter can be difficult at times, but the rapport that two people who are incredibly close have can also come with surprising ease, and I think maybe that’s why this song resonated the hardest for me, personally—and why the song’s second verse was the most affecting.
Regardless of who “How You Doing?” is actually about, Williams elaborates on the importance of the intimacy as the song continues to unfold, before its lonely conclusion: “‘Cause many storms have come, and if not for you, I’d been struck down…I know it’s hard for you to take a compliment but my life began the day that you came in it.”
The thing, though, throughout Flowers for Vases is that there is no resolve, or easy answers for any of the things that Williams implores. “I wonder how you’re doing now,” she asks at the end of the first verse; then, after the devastating second verse, a difficult question that begs an even more difficult answer—“I wonder how you view me now.”
Williams has used this time, and uses her time on Flowers to explore myriad things, touching on (as she did slightly on Petals for Armor) the misogyny she faced as one of the few women (and a young woman at that) working in a male dominated atmosphere, as well as vaguely introducing fragments from traumatic childhood experiences—but it is primarily focused on exploring her relationship with others—when things were good, when things went wrong, and if there is ever going to be a chance to make amends.
The album, much like our lives right now, is left open ended. She is alive, and her job is to keep living and help others do the same, despite there being no clear resolution.
Flowers for Vases is a statement about the spaces that we allow to form between ourselves and others, whether we want them to have formed or not.
The thing that resonates from beginning to end on Flowers for Vases is that it is a lonely album, or at least an album created from a lonely place. But here’s the thing—within the last year, we have all been in our own lonely place. Those places may look different—some of us might really be alone, and some of just may just feel figuratively alone, or lonely, even if we literally aren’t.
But even if those places look different, and maybe feel different, there are similarities unknowingly keeping us connected to one another.
It sounds terrible to say, but as Flowers for Vases unfolds, there is a small sense of comfort knowing that someone else is feeling even a fraction of the way I am (or you are), and that the person who is feeling that way can express their feelings in an articulate, gorgeous way, and can pour all of that into something that is both very urgent, and ‘of the time,’ due to why and how it was created, but is poignant and beautiful enough to become more than that—an echo that lingers beyond this year alone, and can still resonate once things, the world, begin to shift again (hopefully for the better.)
Stark self-reflection and rumination on the past isn’t a new idea—Williams, like all of us, was more than likely wrestling with these things prior to last year, but she took the opportunity to do something constructive, though difficult, with her thoughts by giving them a voice, and projecting out what so many of us were already thinking about.
1-Too much to work into the opening of the piece but this is mostly about “Why We Ever,” and, like, how by the time it was released as a single, the lyrics had become something much larger than intended.
2- I say ‘single’ using big air quote energy because the song was burned onto a CD-R and Williams hand delivered it to a friend, hoping they would leak it onto the internet, a full week before the project was officially announced.
3- I’m taking this out of context a little bit here because the next line of the song makes the implication that it’s about someone she has a working relationship with from either Paramore, or her solo outings, at least according to the hot goss from Genius. I just really like this specific fragment from that lyric because I see a lot of myself in it.
4- Pretty confident she’s talking about her dog here.
Flowers for Vases is available is a digital download from Atlantic; it is unclear if/when a physical release would take place.