If there’s one thing that truly defines Hayley Williams, it’s power. Barely over five-feet tall, Williams has built an outstanding presence for herself in the 15 years she’s been a working musician. Any sense of her being the girl singer of a pop-punk band as a gimmick was thrown right out the window when she first hit the chorus of Paramore’s “Pressure” all the way back in 2005. There was clarity and focus in the raw power of every high note Williams hit, whether it was bitter (“Brick by Boring Brick,” “Ignorance”) or joyful (“Misery Business,” “Ain’t It Fun”). She was not screaming for the sake of shock or showing-off, there was a world-weary heart behind that voice coloring Paramore’s songs with the same fiery attitude as the blazes in her hair. So Williams has an obvious and powerful strength, but now she’s trying to find a new one.
In spite of her past personal wishes, Williams has finally delivered her first solo album…sort of. Petals for Armor is three five-song EPs (two that contained album’s first ten tracks were released earlier this year) strung together, hence the albums 15 tracks sequenced as three sets of tracks one through five. For those expecting Williams to belt out more alt-rock anthems backed by crunchy guitar riffs and big drums, don’t hold your breath. In fact, Petals for Armor is an even further departure for Williams after Paramore showed how much they liked Vampire Weekend on their last album After Laughter. Produced entirely by Paramore bandmate Taylor York, Petals for Armor is a perplexingly-understated 56 minutes with Williams again wearing her musical influences on her sleeve. Dashes of Imogen Heap, Björk, New Order and The Postal Service are heard throughout the 15 tracks with their sparse instrumentals, low register, relaxed delivery and a greater focus on atmosphere than energy.
The most obvious influence here is Radiohead, especially in the album’s creepy and self-loathing mood and its rhythm section on certain songs. It’s impossible not to think of Colin Greenwood and Philip Selway when hearing the creeping drum-bass dynamic on “Simmer,” “Leave It Alone,” and “Roses / Lotus / Violet / Iris.” Most of the time that creeping atmosphere makes for more awkwardness than excitement. “Cinnamon” sounds like a hollow Muse demo missing an instrumental track that completes the envelopment of the listener while “Creepin’” lumbers along with annoying vocal effects and an embarrassing chorus. “Dead Horse” tries to leisurely skip along but is undercut by a goofy break of “ya ya ya ya” before the third chorus. Even when there are successful soft moments, like the building sexual tension of “Sudden Desire” or “Why We Ever” humming about lost friends, they don’t stand out as much because the quieter mood of those tracks have been the feel for the entire album. Though some of Paramore’s highlights were when they quieted things down (“26,” “Misguided Ghosts,” “We Are Broken,” “Hate To See Your Heart Break”), the droll electronics and understated musicianship of Petals for Armor leaves Williams sounding bored and tired.
There is a sense that some of these songs were outtakes or demos from the After Laughter sessions. “Over Yet” and “Watch Me While I Bloom” have similar bouncing bass lines and rolling drums to “Hard Times” and “Told Ya So.” Williams later goes full Chvrches with the 80s dance throwback “Sugar on the Rim” while “Taken” sounds like a sly wink back at Tom Misch’s jazzy “It Runs Through Me.” The album improves in energy and personality in its final five tracks, but it can’t entirely block out the slog of the first two-thirds. It’s both a lack of commitment to the thesis of the album and an unfair tease of a much better collection of songs missing here.
Said thesis is heard in the very first line Williams sings on the album opener “Simmer”: “Rage is a quiet thing.” Williams has lived a lifetime of emotional turmoil in her 31 years (parental divorce, years of sexism, band turmoil, her own divorce) and she has plenty to say about her current state. As heard in her lyrics for Paramore, Williams is a direct and descriptive writer so whoever she’s writing about on Petals for Armor will certainly feel the rage through the speakers. You can hear her grind her teeth singing “and if my child needed protection/From a f**ker like that man” on “Simmer,” likely holding back dragon’s breath or her vocal equivalent. The careless joy in the bridge of subdued survivor’s tale “Dead Horse” (“When I said goodbye, I hope you cried”) is something Williams earned.
It’s a shame that the music here is so understated, because a lot of the lyrics deserve something bigger and louder and more aggressive, like a backing twin-guitar rock band. “Cinnamon” could’ve been Williams being humorous about her current living state (“On the walls of my home/There are signs that I’m alone/I keep on every light/Talk to my dog, he don’t mind”) but the groggy backing vocals and bass-heavy backing track makes the listening very uncomfortable. “Over Yet” is the album’s outreaching empowerment anthem (“If there’s resistance/It makes you stronger…When there’s persistence/You can go farther”) whose message would stick harder if the rolling drums and heavy bass had a loud peppy guitar adding to its energy. Other lyrics do fit the easy musicality of certain songs, like the lounge R&B of “Taken” (“My feet won’t touch the ground beneath me/I’m flying but I’m not afraid to fall”) or how “Sugar on the Rim” builds tension (“Had a life in hiding but a storm kept coming in”) to the bass drop. But again, there’s still a missing musical release to match Williams’s lyrics.
What Petals for Armor thinks is stripped-down and intimate actually sounds unfinished and undercooked musically. Williams’s great songwriting remains intact, even if sometimes she’s still awkward confronting her past, but the music here is mostly boring and basic. It’s bold for Williams to keep furthering outside her musical comfort zone, but that doesn’t mean she should ignore her mastered strengths. Williams is a rock singer, having moved well beyond the trapping of pop-punk years ago yet still thriving on headbanging drums and guitar riffs. If she’s doing an album focused on rage and the strength she’s built over the years, shouldn’t she sound stronger than a bedroom pop singer?