Paramore is dead, long live Paramore!
The former Warped Tour mavens are not the same band that made “Misery Business” nearly a decade ago. They’ve gone through personal drama, lineup changes, nuptials, and the fact that the punk-pop/emo genre they used to make it big has all but dissipated into either chest-beating nostalgia or attempts to adapt into the modern music landscape.
Paramore, like their contemporaries in Fall Out Boy and Panic! At the Disco, went with the latter on their 2013 self-titled album, hiring longtime Beck collaborator Justin Meldal-Johnsen to produce a sonically heavier, yet more pop-friendly output. It’s easy to understand why fans would be more eager to see what Paramore’s next move would be: would they pull their toes out of the uncharted waters of pop music or dive headfirst into the deep end of sweet, bouncy, bright-like-neon bubblegum?
On the surface, After Laughter sounds a lot like a full-on swan dive. Again produced by Meldal-Johnsen (along with guitarist Taylor York), Paramore’s fifth studio album is a glossy, lush, buoyant romp with bright organs, plucked guitar strings, bouncy drums, and frontwoman Hayley Williams singing with more jubilance than ever before.
That’s not to say that Ms. Williams is overstaying her welcome. On the contrary, her vocals are more textured and relaxed than any previous record, as if she’s finally relaxed into carrying emotion through her songs instead of being a fiery force for every song she’s in. “Fake Happy,” “Forgiveness,” “Pool,” and lead single “Hard Times” shows Williams willing to show restraint in her vocal performance and focus more on the story of the lyrics she’s singing. That doesn’t mean she can’t have her moments to flex her titanic vocals on the likes of “Rose-Colored Boy,” “Idle Worship,” and “Grudges.”
Paramore has been a trio for nearly seven years, this time around without longtime bassist Jeremy Davis but with returning drummer Zac Farro. He, York, and Meldal-Johnsen make for some inspired instrumentals on the album. They certainly wear their influences on their sleeves, with echoes of Two Door Cinema Club, The 1975, and New Order all throughout the album.
“Told You So” sounds like a Chvrches b-side propelled by keyboards and bouncy hi-hat cymbals, while “Caught in the Middle” could be a solid album track off of The Strokes’ Room on Fire. York might be the album MVP with his impressive guitar skills, plucking and strumming on bouncy rhythm instead of just blind aggression. “Told You So,” “Hard Times,” and “Grudges” feature York creating more atmospheric soundscapes with his guitars, providing a sturdy backbone for each song. Farro is no slouch either, rolling on the drum kit to create solid dance rock akin to Friendly Fires or The Rapture. The band’s secret weapon, as it was on Paramore, is Meldal-Johnsen’s thick production and excellent keyboards. He seems to understand Paramore’s pop potential but doesn’t drown them out with studio technology. He sees a band, not a brand.
According to Williams, the album title refers to the snapping back to reality from the joy of laughter. The band jumps right into that reality on the opening track “Hard Times” (“gonna make you wonder why you even try….gonna take you down and laugh when you cry”). That snap back to reality is all over the album, whether it’s dropping optimism on “Rose-Colored Boy” (“Just let me cry a little bit longer/I ain’t gon’ smile if I don’t want to”) or the pure hatred of phoniness on “Fake Happy” (“Oh please, don’t ask me how I’ve been/Don’t make me play pretend/Oh no, oh what’s the use?/Oh please, I bet everybody here is fake happy too”). Paramore even have the gall to reject their own status as rock stars on “Idle Worship” (“Oh, it’s such a long and awful lonely fall/Down from this pedestal that you keep putting me on”), fading into the even-nastier “No Friend” with guest vocals from Mewithoutyou frontman Aaron Weiss.
Paramore are at their best when they show their more delicate side (see “(One of Those) Crazy Girls” from Paramore and “Misguided Ghosts” from Brand New Eyes) and After Laughter’s highlight is the acoustic ballad “26.” Here, Williams sings about the indestructible hope that lives on in that damned process of aging and adulthood (“I’m hoping someday maybe I’ll just float away/And I’ll forget every cynical thing you said…And they say that dreaming is free/But I wouldn’t care what it cost me”). Despite all the cynical, sharp attitude the band brings to their songs, it’s nice to hear that their youth is still intact.
While Paramore may have admitted to growing up on their last album, After Laughter shows that it doesn’t mean they have to sacrifice the energy they’re famous for. If anything, Paramore have challenged that spark and repurposed it to make a more fleshed-out sound. Sonically, it’s certainly a sharp contrast from their previous records and a smart step forward. It might be too much sugary sweetness for one album, but the lyrics add a sour punch if listened closely.
Paramore’s talents have never been merely surface level, but a biting attitude underneath. Don’t let the candy-colored album cover fool you, the band’s sour punch is still alive and well.