Genre: New Wave, Synth Pop
Label: Fueled by Ramen
Media Types: Digital, Streaming, CD
Release Date: May 12, 2017
Paramore, the darlings of emo rock from the late 2000s, are back with a new album since their self-titled album released four years ago, After Laughter. However, Hayley Williams and company have decided to go in a decidedly different direction with this new release, opting for a more 80s inspired pop sound with their hard rock sound from their previous albums MIA. Furthermore, since the release of the last album, bassist Jeremy Davis quit and later sued the band. Former drummer Zac Farro also returned to the band after his similarly acrimonious departure in 2010. Needless to say, all these changes and animosity behind the scenes has had a profound effect on the album and as a result, this is quite the loaded album to go into. If anything, this is inherently going to be an interesting listen. But is it good or bad? Does the genre swap, backstage drama, and line up changes have a positive or negative effect on their fifth album? Well, before I get into the review proper, here’s a bit of background so you know where I’m coming from.
I do not consider myself a Paramore fan. I didn’t listen to them back in their popular heyday as they never really appealed to me and the amount of exposure they got online, especially on Myspace, had me actively avoid them. I was in my early 20s in the late 2000s so many I was just over the line that was their intended demographic. However, I did give their last album a listen and I was shockingly impressed. Their sound was energetic, the grooves were solid, and the lyrics were poignant and tackled issues and perspectives often not discussed. I was even impressed that the album maintained its quality despite its long length. Paramore was one of my favorite albums of that year, and I was hoping that they would continue with that sound in their next release and flesh it out to something more mature. So I am coming to this album with a bit of hesitation, as this isn’t really what I wanted. A rock band making a pop album? Yeah, with fewer and fewer carrying the rock torch in mainstream music, that’s what we need more of. Regardless, I do like pop music so reservations aside, I’m willing to give this an honest listen.
For those wondering, this review is based on me having listened to this album from beginning to end at total of five times. However, I listened to it differently the first time than I did the second through fifth times. I listened intently the first time and read the lyrics as I did. The remaining times I listened to it more casually. In the future, I plan to not do it this way as I think it’s better for a first impression to be more of a casual listen with later listens to be more analytical or at least a mix, but I can’t change how I experienced this album so just keep that in mind.
So, does the genre shift work? All things considered, I think it does. The album is mostly an upbeat, easy listen with much of the substance coming from the lyrics. The music is bouncy and the rock vibe still manages to remain present, even if it’s with the more radio-friendly New Wave style. However, it doesn’t succeed with flying colors. I feel the need to say this: this album didn’t impress the first time around. It was only during my second listen did it start to click. This is definitely an album that has to grow on you. For example, the first song on the album, the single “Hard Times” didn’t click with me the first time. The hook seem too weak and the melody in the lyrics felt too sparse. However, upon further listens, the chorus has a bounce to it that eventually becomes infectious, the chorus ender is quirky and endearing, and the somewhat disco meets tribal instrumentation is charming. Also, although the melody for the lyrics feels a bit forced sometimes, they work thanks to the more staccato delivery.
“Hard Times” is a strong representative of the album as tracks like “Rose-Colored Boy” and “Told You So” work in similar ways. Simple melodies that are ultimate used in clever ways and become earworms before you know it. And that’s the thing: even if you don’t like this album when you first hear it, it still has songs that you’ll remember. I’ve noticed this is especially true with the ballads on this album. Songs like “Forgiveness” and “Tell Me How” have a more breezy, laid back kind of sound that’s light on hooks but more pleasant and at least for me, stuck with me even more. “Forgiveness” was a song I enjoyed even during my first listen and I got a Gwen Stefani vibe ala “Cool” from it.
The production is extremely polished. Every riff and melody is where it needs to be when it does. This can make for formulaic moments at times, especially from the guitars. However, I want to give a shout out to returning drummer Zac Farro, whose drum work is often the most interesting performance on each track. Unfortunately, there are some tracks that are underwritten and revisit ideas used in the stronger songs and they suffer for it. Songs like “Pool” and “Grudges” aren’t distinct enough from the other songs on the album, especially in their instrumentation, and drag the album down.
Some of that formulaic moments can at times make the album’s songs blend into each other and deeper scrutiny will highlight this even more. Each song is distinct for the most part, but they’re not SO distinct that they all have they’re own feel and vibe. This is where the simplicity of the songs backfires as while some of the songs do stick with you, there’s some that just won’t, and think a lack of distinction is the culprit. For as much as the genre shift works, they don’t do anything to reinvent or add something new to the sound. I noticed this a lot the first time I heard this album and that was my biggest issue with the album then. I will also say that if you’re looking for anything remotely resembling Paramore’s previous work, you’re out of luck as there’s nothing here that resembles emo or hard rock here. This is a dramatic shift musically that some are just not going to appreciate.
Lyrically is where this album really shines. The album is actually quite the downer, in contrast to the happy sounding music. It’s apparent that the entire album is meant to be a ruse as Williams is smiling through her pain throughout. It’s thinly veiled though, especially in the obviously titled “Fake Happy” and the aforementioned “Hard Times”. Many of the lyrics deal with depression, social expectations, anxiety, and failed relationships, romantic or otherwise. These lyrics aren’t particularly challenging or abstract, as the word choices are simple like the music, and those looking for something more deep will be left wanting. However, I encourage you to pay attention to what Williams is singing as she’s talking about some rather complex emotions that are not only deeper than your typical mainstream pop song or angsty emo track, but relatable as well.
Williams expresses how difficult it is to move on from a hurtful relationship and her reservations to do so despite the other person’s apologies in “Forgiveness”, saying “Forgiving is not forgetting”. “Rose-Colored Boy” and “Told You So” both deal with wanting to wallow with negative feelings and thoughts despite having someone positive in your life, an obvious description of someone with depression or a negative mindset. “26” and “Caught in the Middle” do a great job describing what it feels like to ostensibly have a quarter-life crisis, being too young to feel old, but too old to feel young, especially “Caught in the Middle” with lyrics like “A dream is good, if you don’t wear it out”. “Idle Worship” really excels in its lyrics as it describes the problem with holding someone to such high esteem. Probably alluding to the way we treat celebrities in our culture, Williams expresses something she struggles with the contradicting bridge lyrics “Don’t let me let you down” and “Just let me let you down”.
Some of the lyrics could come across as overly dramatic, but Williams also shows great range as well as restraint in her singing and sells each lyric confidently and intently. The exuberance she displays in “Hard Times” is palpable. The playfulness in her singing in “Told You So” makes that song all the more enjoyable. I particularly enjoy her chaotic delivery in “Idle Worship”, as her voice feels like it’s constantly about to go off the rails. She essentially is ranting the lyrics, not caring if she’s shouting because you’re the one who’s shouting! And that’s not to mention the resistance in “Forgiveness”, the sincerity in “Tell Me How”, and more. It’s all just so good. A stellar performance from Williams throughout.
The only places where the lyrics seem to fail is when the music does. Again, “Pool” and “Grudges” tackle subjects already addressed in “Tell Me How” and “Forgiveness” respectively but to a weaker degree. However, easily the weakest song on the album is the experimental “No Friend”. Essentially an instrumental track, it features Aaron Weiss of MewithoutYou on vocals but the vocals are so far back in the mixing, you can barely hear him. Not that you’re missing much as upon reading the lyrics (this was the only way I could decipher what he was saying confidently), they are the most pretentious lyrics about the importance of musicians and the typical tortured artist. Not that it’s not a thing, but as its described and spoken word said by Weiss is pompous. Musically, it’s a bit too repetitive as well so it’s just a low point of the album overall. I only kept listening it on my later listens because I wanted to try to hear what he was saying without reading the lyrics.
While their gamble with a new sound doesn’t always pay off in interesting and lively performances and instrumentation, there’s plenty here in the grooves, lyrics, and vocals to declare this tonal shift and by proxy this album a success. Williams excels with her vocals and lyrics, the band puts on a great performance overall, and the hooks are simple yet catchy. If this is the direction Paramore winds up going in, I would love to hear this sound built upon with catchier hooks and more clever lyrics. Maybe address the lack of distinction in the compositions. Really I just want more of the same but better. Highlights from this album are “Told You So”, “Forgiveness”, and “Idle Worship” so check those out on your own or with the videos I have here. Give it a listen, but then give it another listen. It might surprise you. It sure did surprise me. Then again, their last release surprising me too. I guess Paramore is a surprising band. And there’s definitely nothing wrong with that.
Thank you so much for reading this review. I really tried to get to the nitty-gritty of this album to give you an informed and experienced opinion. If you liked this review, share on all the socials and leave a comment. I’d really appreciate your feedback to know if you liked this approach or not. Feel free to check out other album reviews I’ve done as well as all the other content I made here on my website. Until next time, peace and love, audiophiles and music lovers! Colorwind out.