For over a decade, Hayley Williams sold gale-force emotional reckoning as the lead singer of Paramore, one of the most successful bands on the forefront of the mainstream emo revolution of the middle aughts. Hard-charging riffs carried her sweeping vocals and incisive lyrics across the country, building the band’s profile through endless touring. Paramore stayed on by avoiding time off. The trek for 2009’s Brand New Eyes ran deep into 2011, at which point the band closed out the year with a series of singles, then spent a chunk of 2012 crafting what would come to be its self-titled album and then hit the ground running at the beginning of 2013 on the Self-Titled Tour, which ran through 2015. Williams — who joined the band as a teenager after having split her younger years between metropolitan Mississippi and Tennessee, moving with her mother after her parents divorced — essentially grew up in Paramore. And Paramore grew up with her, refining its emo style enough to earn a spot in the epochal Guitar Hero series and then slipping out of the party before it died down, pivoting into glossy pop rock in the new decade as scene peers like Fall Out Boy and Panic! strained to adapt to changing times.
This all looked idyllic and empowering from the outside, but appearances can be deceiving, principally in music, where good money is spent making sure talent looks as cool as it sounds. Inside, Williams was running to outpace a mounting inner darkness coloring the way she saw herself, her role in her band, and her relationship with now ex-husband New Found Glory lead guitarist Chad Gilbert, whom she met at 18. The feeling informs 2017’s After Laughter, a collection of beguilingly bright melodies masking a glum emotional candor earlier songs like “Miracle” and “Emergency” once touched on, albeit mawkishly, as was the tradition in the Alt Press era. In retrospect, a song like “Caught in the Middle,” a should-I-stay-or-should-I-go moment where Williams wonders whether force of habit is a good-enough reason to keep an exhausting thing going, seems like a reckoning with an entire way of living. By the summer of the same year, the singer was single for the first time in a decade. When touring for After Laughter wrapped, Paramore went on a break, giving Hayley space to rediscover herself and restructure the relationships that had defined her adult life.
“Dead Horse,” a lilting, tropical tune from Hayley Williams’s debut solo album, Petals for Armor, revels in wisdom she’d been tiptoeing around on the last album: “I beat it like a dead horse, I beat it like a drum / Oh, I stayed with you too long / Skipping like a record, but I sang along / And now you get another song.” Sometimes the way to progress in a situation where we feel trapped is to step away from it. Sometimes a change of setting and a bit of personal upheaval are a recipe for a breakthrough. Petals for Armor feels like meeting Hayley Williams for the first time. Her old signatures — the gymnastic yawp, the sunny backing band, the sunset-orange hair — are toned down. Petals is vast and turbulent, subject to sudden shifts in tone and texture, like open water. If you came looking for a furtherance of After Laughter’s pop sounds, you’re sucker-punched at the door with “Simmer,” a slow-cooker about marshaling your feelings that could slip into the dour, danceable rock of Radiohead’s King of Limbs unnoticed. If you start thinking this is the Radiohead turn, a Kid A-ish rejection of the building blocks that made the last album, ’80s pop jams like “Dead Horse” and “Pure Love” and the St. Vincent-y art-funk of “Cinnamon” knock you on your ass.
Petals for Armor isn’t your textbook breakup album or your run-of-the-mill pop-star pivot, although it does take those shapes in “Why We Ever,” which has acute Dev-Hynes-writing-with-Carly-Rae-Jepsen energy — and in the whole of the last third of the album, where the gloom of “Simmer” and “Leave It Alone,” a song that receives the illness of a family member at a time where the singer was starting to feel good about life as a cruel prank from on high, suddenly evaporates. Really, Petals for Armor is the winding road out of a bad place, the self-deprecating humor and self-pitying thought processes we engage in when we’re feeling down but also the cautious optimism and the new beginnings on the other side. “Pure Love” is a song not about falling in love but about the realization that it doesn’t happen if you don’t make yourself vulnerable. “Watch Me While I Bloom” is a celebration of newfound maturity and, like the lyric in “Dead Horse” about turning adversity into music, a wink from a gifted writer to her audience: “You only got one side of me / Here’s something new, ahh!” Williams promises that the next Paramore album will revisit its pop-punk roots, but turning the clock back on this sprawling evolution is like cramming the snake back into the can.
*A version of this article appears in the May 25, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!