Hayley Williams Is in Her Feelings on Delicate ‘Flowers for Vases/Descansos’

It may surprise critics of punk-pop chart toppers Paramore to learn that the new solo album by frontwoman Hayley Williams, “Flowers For Vases / Descansos,” is pretty wonderful. Listening to singer-songwriters who wear their hearts on their electric guitars is not something everyone would willingly choose to do, particularly as the world rounds the bend on a full year of some form of quarantine life; they have their own feelings to deal with, so a group of thirtysomethings’ musical diary entries is (quite reasonably) the last thing they care to entertain right now. But across fourteen sparsely-accompanied tracks, Williams proves to be an uncommonly good songwriter with a genre-defying voice, touching on everything from Bonnie Raitt’s bluesy maturity to Sia’s velvety yearning as she explores those feelings she turns into huge hits with Paramore into more intimate, haunting meditations on life and love.

Opening with “First Thing To Go,” Williams sings about a codependency she struggles to let go of, “First thing to go, was the sound of his voice / It echoes still, I’m sure, but I can’t hear it / Was it gentle or cold? Or maybe just noise, I / Heard what I wanted, until I couldn’t.” After almost a year of “quarantine music,” would-be bedroom epics from artists whose creativity couldn’t be cooped up even if they could, the song feels only incidentally like an excursion in navel-gazing, which makes it feel more relatable, or less forced, than other records released in the last several months. It also helps that she has a fairly effortlessly evocative voice, reflecting on experiences and sensations that may indeed be deeply personal, but take on a relatable edge when she sings about them.

The track also sets a musical tone for “Flowers For Vases” — an old-school, Sheryl Crow kind of songwriter pop — that touches delicately on the emotion of the songs without belaboring it, and maintaining their catchiness. Ironically, track two (and the album’s first single) “My Limb” feels more of a piece with her Paramore material, featuring a fuller-bodied backing arrangement thanks to producer Daniel James; but on “Asystole,” she restores the same feeling as “First Thing To Go,” as acoustic guitar, a bit of piano and the title’s clinical terminology (defined as “total cessation of electrical activity from the heart”) serve as misdirection for Williams’ musing about a relationship that, suffice it to say, is not healthy. 

But “Trigger” deepens the record as Williams exudes a welcome self-awareness, offering more relationship reflections that, yeah, could easily double as journal entries, but she manages to make confessionals without being self-aggrandizing. “I get off on telling everybody what went wrong,” she sings. “It makes me feel like the pain had a purpose / Keeps me believing that maybe it’s worth it.” The fact that she knows it wasn’t worth it feels not just powerful, but valuable for the listener. But she moves on to more earnest questions, acknowledging that the process of making breakthroughs doesn’t necessarily equip you to move on or know how to process things better the next time: “So what do people sing about once they finally found it? / Take it for granted, think of how they were better without it.” The country-pop dressings of “Over Those Hills” double down on that sentiment as she wonders about a lover she’s no longer with, singing, “When you wake up, ever wish I was beside you?”

Williams has a voice that makes songs more relatable, more universal, the more specific the writing is. On “Good Grief,” for example, she talks about a former collaborator whose music provides a background for her lyrical confessions. But a theme quickly emerges over the course of the album — if I’ve learned some big lessons about good and bad relationships, I might make the same mistakes again — that as a listener you can either lean into, providing a soundtrack for one’s own romantic foibles, or simply enjoy as a framing device for one pretty melody after another. She interrupts that stream of feelings with some funny, welcome gaffes, such as on “HYD,” where literally as she’s singing “When the air is quiet and the sky is blue,” an overhead airplane interrupts her recording, prompting her to respond, “Are you fucking kidding me?” before starting over again. It’s details like that that make her musical efforts feel more honest, and less pristine, reminding the rest of us that the pathway between artists and their expression is sometimes as bumpy or unpredictable as everyone else’s.

The album wraps with “Descansos,” an instrumental named after the roadside memorials set up for individuals who might have died in a car accident, and finally, “Just a Lover,” a quietly cathartic resolution to all of the failures and fruitless searches of the previous tracks. Singing “I’ll be singing into empty glasses / No more music for the masses / One more hour, one more ugly, stillborn cry,” she makes a powerful connection with the listener even as she seemingly suggests she’s placing some distance between them and her success with Paramore, much less as a solo artist; if expressing these feelings so publicly and so poetically can’t make them better, then what hope is there for the rest of us? But the answer lies in the song’s title: what love does to us, it’s done to Williams, as many times over, so what we all are in spite of our triumphs and tribulations, successes and shortcomings, are people trying to love — and find love. It would be easy in the context of her career and her body of work to see that as a self-indulgent or even pessimistic notion, but right now that universality seems positively reassuring. If “Flowers For Vases” finds Williams as much in her feelings as ever, getting to join her, right now, is a comforting experience.

Flowers For Vases / Descansos” releases Feb. 5 on Apple Music.