Hayley Williams Demonstrates Resilience Through Femininity in ‘Petals for Armor’
After 17 years as frontwoman of pop punk outfit Paramore, Hayley WIlliams has made her highly anticipated solo effort. It’s a move charged with controversy as Williams has always famously insisted on playing with her band, even though she was the only member officially signed to Atlantic Records. Her debut album is a monumental, cathartic expulsion of years of drama. A troublesome relationship with New Found Glory’s Chad Gilbert began with infidelity and ended in divorce. Williams had nearly given up music for a domestic life when she found herself drastically reevaluating everything. Extensive therapy and aggressive songwriting led to a period of prolonged soul-searching that informs the new set of songs. Along the way, Williams, who grew up in the male-dominated punk scene, sought to better identify and explore her feminine side. The appropriately titled result is “Petals for Armor,” an unprecedentedly ambitious recording that finds WIlliam trying out new pop sensibilities, and coming out with flying colors. Having teased the release in two installments earlier this year, she now releases the whole package, with its final third, presenting an inspiring emotional journey via infectious tunes.
Lead single “Simmer” introduces the fresh new sound that no one saw coming. Williams made it clear in her last release with Paramore, 2017’s heavily new wave-oriented “After Laughter,” that she had no qualms about exploring uncharted sonic territory. Still, the first few moments alone reveal that she has now taken another direction altogether. She starts beatboxing, and a smooth pop track full of quirky electronic nuance builds around her utterances. There are echoes of Thom Yorke’s solo work, which she has indeed specifically cited as an influence. Her commanding, dynamic vocal is up-front and can be a bit jarring, as she winces, seethes and froths, whispering, bellowing away with verve, and throwing in little bits of clipped chorus singalongs. The emotional journey of the album begins with Williams confronting her bottled-up anger, pondering, “Oh, how to draw the line between wrath and mercy?” The floral thread running through the album begins as she sings, “wrap yourself in petals,” in lethargic, draw-out belts, over what sounds like popping bubble wrap, and hints at a promising resolve that will come to eventual fruition upon the chorus line, “Simmer down.”
On “Leave It Alone,” the contained rage gives way to a weary, defeated tone, albeit with an audible tinge of hope, as Williams observes, “Now that I want to live / Well, everybody around me is dying,” and goes on to bravely turn down the ignorance-is-bliss temptation, declaring, “The truth’s a killer / But I can’t leave it alone.” There’s a distinctly ‘90s pop sound, with the nearly breakbeat drum track and easy acoustic guitar backing, and Williams stretches out her notes, blending in with string tones that sound like groaning cows, a sound of seeking solace in near desperation. Next, the pace picks up dramatically on standout “Cinnamon,” as WIlliams lets out enraptured howls of “Ah-ooh” in warbling, mutating melodies that distort and fray at the ends, and flow in warped, winding, entrancing paths. Over the infectious, propulsive backdrop, WIlliams sounds, at moments, a bit deranged, as if too heavily invested in the eponymous cinnamon. The song is about Williams’ home, the one she moved into after her divorce, here celebrated as a symbol of a particular stage in an emotional journey. The theme of coming to terms with her femininity is also teased vaguely, as she sings, “Home is where I’m feminine / Smells like citrus and cinnamon.”
A new environment comes with new company, and Williams sees to this matter on “Creepin’,” in which she calls out an energy vampire, jeering, “Why you creepin’ ‘round here?” in distortion, as a funky guitar riff chugs along. At moments, the festive, buoyant track recalls the cartoonish, designedly amateurish pop experiments of Kesha. It’s out with the old and in with the new, and Williams promptly proceeds with “Sudden Desire,” a celebration of frighteningly immediate infatuation. It’s a rare case in which a premature chorus works to the song’s advantage, as it serves to convey the “sudden” feeling. Williams tries out jazzy, soul inflections, replete with backing vocals that accent just the right bits in swelling ad libs, and returns to ‘90s spirit in an aggressive, distorted rock chorus.
For the second installment of the “Petals” series, WIlliams suddenly gets more personal than ever. “Dead Horse” begins with a recording of a voice memo in which she admits struggling to come out of a depression. She sings with chilling directness of her situation with Chad GIlbert, reflecting, “I got what I deserved, I was the other woman first,” and goes on to regret wasting so much time trying to make a relationship rooted in deception work. Frilly guitar lines unravel into a beaming chorus, and you can hear Williams relishing the lines, “When I say goodbye, I hope you cry.” “Friend,” a simple ode to friendship, offers a timely respite from this charged emotion, bringing more nods to ‘90s radio-ready alternative, more jazzy touches, and exhilarating bits that revisit the edgy energy of “Cinnamon.”
“Over Yet” is something of a songwriting marvel that brilliantly fashions relationship resilience into a workout jam. Williams begins chanting, “If there’s resistance / It makes you stronger,” an idea that might as well be the album’s central mantra. Industrial pop punk stomp gives way to the most buoyant, beaming chorus so far, with echoes of Madonna, Janet Jackson, and all associated ‘80s excesses. In a flash, Williams is instructing, “Break a sweat / Baby, tell yourself it ain’t over yet,” in a perfect channeling of energy. The joyful, tacky festivity is balanced out by the subsequent “Roses / Lotus / Violet / Isis,” a soft, graceful number featuring supergroup boygenius on backing vocals. It’s a song about femininity, with flowers in a garden as the central metaphor. Williams sings “Roses / Show no concern for colors of a violet,” hinting at notions of implicit cooperative spirit among women. Boygenius contributes light, flowing, sinuous melodies, rounded at the edges, that bend into a pregnant pause, then erupt into a flawless serenade, as if finding beauty in struggle.
Among Williams’ most surprising new directions are the R&B explorations that fill much of the album. “Why We Ever” excavates the most ‘80s strain of this style, with abundant slap bass, and pauses for reflection that give an airy, melancholy mood. Williams sings about disconnecting from a troubled figure from the past, and the sonic atmosphere emphasizes how far she has come from the bottled aggression of “Simmer.” This sets the stage neatly for the final installment of “Petals,” a decidedly brighter affair, in which the ‘80s aesthetic guides a period of rejuvenation. “Pure Love” picks up where the last track left off, with a little more spring in Williams’ step, as she lets out thoughtful musings like “The opposite of love is fear,” and sings about daring to try love again, with a sound that fits the sentiment, teasing and eventually launching into a jubilant outburst. “Taken” skips a bit further along in the narrative, and at this point, Williams has plunged headlong into delightfully kitsch nostalgia. She employs jazzy stylings via quintessentially ‘80s bona fide tastelessness, reminding us of how that decade’s appallingly poor judgment will always make it well-suited for expressing the foolhardy, whimsical irrationality of love. WIlliams sounds cool and content singing, If anybody asks, yeah / I’m taken / If anybody wants to know / He is too,” and you can’t help but feel happy for her.
Williams lingers on her cloud nine for “Sugar on the Rim,” putting on a sultry, husky voice to speak the titular phrase over flangey percussion, in an industrial pop stomp. The track is festive, and also more edgy than most, with whipping, snapping snares, and serpentine vocal melodies. Williams betrays a new spark, and sings with an audible twinkle in the eye about finding a silver lining in a new relationship. “Watch Me While I Bloom,” the most boldly emphatic statement in the overall floral theme, takes the feeling further, beginning with unrestrained, open mouth singing, and all the awkward bits unabashedly left in. It’s the sound of an unhinged woman, fearless and free. Of course, another ‘80s beat drops, in an example of particularly effective track sequencing, with songs revisiting and building on themes teased earlier. Finally, the rollercoaster ride winds down with “Crystal Clear.” Williams sounds cool and composed, bright and positive, issuing a final validation, “I wanna make it crystal clear / That I won’t give in to the fear,” and actually sounds crystal clear, as if she has cleansed and cleared her palate, and emerged purified and lucid.
“Petals for Armor” is an ambitious, expressive album that reveals an unanticipated stylistic versatility and emotional depth to Hayley WIlliams’ songwriting. It’s as if she overdid it for anyone who harbored doubts about her going solo. The pop punk stylings for which Williams made her name exist here mainly in spirit. In fact, the most punk aspect of the album is how unabashedly pop it is, as if to flaunt its disregard for convention. It’s a concept album that lives up to its name in every regard, with the songs tracing Williams’ journey from wounded desperation to liberated, festive frivolity. The title refers to finding strength by embracing femininity, and the songs do just this. WIlliams explores the giddiest and girliest of sounds, shuttling from angst-ridden ‘90s alternative ethos to decadent ‘80s indulgence, evoking imagery of gardens, cinnamon, and sugar, and ultimately emerging resolute and triumphant.
“Petals for Armor” is available May 8 on Apple Music.