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Paramore’s Excellent, Unnecessary Throwback Album

‘After Laughter’ proves that Hayley Williams & Co. can make a great ’80s record — but they’re still better off redefining the future of rock music

(Fueled by Ramen/Ringer illustration)
(Fueled by Ramen/Ringer illustration)

The 21st century’s best pop-punk band just wrote what might as well be a Chainsmokers song, and snuck it at the end of what might as well be a Blondie album. A pretty good fake Chainsmokers song; a pretty great fake Blondie album. Yes, Paramore have retreated to gleaming synthesizers, to peppy “listens to Afropop once” guitars, to percolating drum machines, to resplendent cloudbursts of pastel and neon. They’ve Gone ’80s, or at least Gone 2017’s Somewhat Reductive Idea of the ’80s.

After Laughter is the Nashville band’s fifth album, and from the cover’s garish Trapper Keeper surrealism on down, the time-machine intent is clear. It is Paramore: Vice City; it is the 100th luftballon. It is the deeply melancholy fun girls just wanna have. Lead singer Hayley Williams — the band’s sole consistent member and overwhelming focal point — pointedly dyed her hair a stark white for this project, ditching the various and vicious shades of sherbet that once defined her, and her band, and the Warped Tour/Hot Topic era of George W. Bush–era mall-punk and emo she came to dominate.

This is no sellout move or grand betrayal: Paramore have been methodically erasing the punk from their pop-punk for the better part of a decade. When they started out in the mid-2000s, only subscribers to Warped-diaspora bible Alternative Press and/or actual teenagers took much notice. But Williams, a 5-foot-nothing firebrand with an exuberant mean streak and more star power than any other Warped frontman would even know what to do with, immediately had far grander designs. The band’s radio hits are strident and singular enough to not alienate hardcore fans; their shows combine packed-basement ferocity with sold-out-stadium grandiosity. Some of the best new rock music of the past several years, from moody Emo Revival artistes to pop-punk caffeine junkies like Charly Bliss, flaunts that same sort of intimate ambition.

Each new Paramore record has been brighter, hookier, and most importantly, huger than the last; it’s only After Laughter’s wistful 30-year glance backward that breaks the pattern. Her biggest fans touted Williams as a pop superstar from the onset, but they probably didn’t expect her to realize that future by retreating to the past. What’s even stranger is that the most notable and current-sounding song on this thing ends up sounding like the Chainsmokers.

The slow roll of mournful piano, the muffled-heartbeat percussion, the guitars soaked in reverb and regret, the insidious bite of the “Tell me how to feel about you now” hook — verily, “Tell Me How” would fit seamlessly on the Chainsmokers’ recent bottle-service melancholia epic Memories … Do Not Open, and vastly improve it besides. All it’s missing is the blaring, triumphant drop, but you could say the same for most chart-raiding EDM these days.

Williams make the song her own, because she’s made every song her own during Paramore’s inexorable DM slide from hard to deceptively soft, underground to deceptively massive. She writes killer quotes for yearbooks, for love notes, for breakup letters, for formal declarations of war: Her climactic cry this time is, “Of all the weapons you fight with / Your silence is the most violent.” It caps an album where she tries on a bunch of different pop stars’ clothes, from retro superstars to contemporary contenders with a nostalgic bent, just to see if she’s still recognizable. Which of course she is. It’s bizarre that she even had to ask.

After Laughter’s peppy first two singles, “Hard Times” and “Told You So,” announced this Nashville Vice rebranding in hilariously aggressive fashion. The Old Wave Is New Again sonics are expertly designed to trigger dozens of retro associations within seconds: Cyndi Lauper. Blondie. The Go-Go’s. Talking Heads for the globe-trotting profundity; Tom Tom Club for the spacey frivolity. What’s odd about this record is how explicitly it echoes quite a few current pop superstars and near-superstars, too. “Caught in the Middle,” with its fizzy ska bounce, is not the first time Paramore has channeled ’90s-vintage No Doubt, but when the chorus hits, it’s pure Katy Perry, bubbly but headstrong, dainty but colossal.

The familiar cutting intimacy of Williams’s lyrics serves her well on this song, too. Opening verse: “I can’t think of getting old / It only makes me want to die / I can’t think of who I was / ’Cause it just makes me want to cry, cry, cry.” The sadly chanted bridge — “I don’t need no help / I can sabotage me by myself” — is a cheerfully self-deprecating mantra that transcends age and genre alike.

But the new development on this album is that you can even imagine someone else singing those words. Carly Rae Jepsen’s ecstatic synth-pop looms large on After Laughter. And the lusher, smoother moments explicitly echo Haim, who are busy redefining 80s soft rock in their own Instagram-queen image. When Williams’s voice doubles or harmonizes with itself on the gentle “Forgiveness” or the gently anthemic “Pool,” it’s as though she’s reconnected with a long-lost sister or two.

Williams is a quick study at dabbling in old sounds and absorbing new influences, the polished result reliably excellent and charismatic. But this isn’t even the only pop-punk-gone-’80s album released Friday. The self-titled debut from Dreamcar, a quasi-supergroup featuring the non–Gwen Stefani members of No Doubt and AFI frontman Davey Havok, mines the same territory even more explicitly, in that it “gleefully nods to the decade of Boy George and Back to the Future.” It might take a few listens to After Laughter to adjust to the idea of Hayley Williams following instead of leading.

Paramore’s early adopters are likely to be the most alarmed about this new direction, but then again, they’ve come to expect soap-opera twists. After all, this band’s internal drama got so intense so fast that their debut album fixates on a departed bandmate. Bassist Jeremy Davis bailed shortly before work officially started on 2005’s All We Know Is Falling; as his reward, most of the songs are about him. He rejoined almost immediately, hung on for a few records, quit in 2015, and triggered a sizable legal drama that both parties finally resolved just last week.

Don’t get too attached to anybody else, is the point. After Laughter is credited to Williams, guitarist Taylor York (a longtime cohort who joined full-time shortly after 2007’s Riot!), and drummer Zac Farro (a founding member and recent returnee who’d quit, along with his still-departed guitarist brother Josh, in the aftermath of 2009’s Brand New Eyes). It is widely assumed that Paramore is a band because Williams wants it to look like a band, and her label (the mega-indie Fueled by Ramen) agreed that the best way to present her was as the leader of a band. When Josh Farro cut ties, he dismissed Paramore as “a manufactured product of a major label,” a craven Williams solo project in all but name. If any member gets too combative (or gets too many lawyers involved), he’ll eventually be politely informed that he’s a mere employee, any sense of ownership or full-partnership illusory. The spotlight’s big enough for only one.

There’s a Third Eye Blind aspect to this, a rock band with a lead singer so commanding and magnetic that, unfairly or not, the Other Guys are rendered expendable. The difference is that Williams is way more likable. All We Know Is Falling is full of propulsive mall-punk with energy but little crossover ambition; the fun in listening to it today is to play Fantasy Record Executive, to see if you would’ve seen the star power.

By Riot!, her magnetism was obvious to everyone, and the band had its first two huge hits. “That’s What You Get” is a Rock Band classic; “Misery Business” is a breathless and ruthless assault on a teenaged romantic rival with lyrics so gnarly (“Once a whore you’re never more, I’m sorry sorry that’ll never change”) that Williams half-apologized for them in 2015. (“‘Misery Business’ is not a set of lyrics that I relate to as a 26-year-old woman.”) Nonetheless, her slow-motion superstar makeover had begun: Riot! pairs nicely with another 2007 pop-punk opus, Avril Lavigne’s giggly and titanic The Best Damn Thing. She and Williams almost sounded like sisters themselves.

Brand New Eyes got tougher and louder, but also added a monster power ballad, “The Only Exception,” whose mega-emo video still gets to me. But the band’s pinnacle thus far is 2013’s Paramore, on which Williams and the Other Guys perfected the art of sounding massive while remaining triumphantly themselves. “Still Into You” and “Ain’t It Fun” are both playful, strident, and ungodly enormous, mass-market hymns delivered with an unmistakable voice, redefining both pop and punk at once.

Her fellow punk rockers and pop stars alike stole plenty of these moves. For example: In 2010, when Taylor Swift wanted to add a vituperative Rock Song to her boundary-smashing third album, Speak Now, she came up with “Better Than Revenge,” which is extremely sassy and sounds very familiar. (Williams is a longtime Swift cohort who costarred in the infamous “Bad Blood” video as “The Crimson Curse.”) There were few better role models than Williams, in terms of escaping your own genre and slowly colonizing the rest of them.

After Laughter is the first evidence that she’s following someone else’s blueprint. Less a step backward than an amiable shuffle sideways, it vividly colors within the lines. It peaks with the mid-album trinity of “Fake Happy,” “26,” and “Pool,” all variations on the theme of uncertainty and depression as constant, universal emotions worth celebrating, since there’s no point in trying to escape. Some of that uncertainty is likely band-related: There’s a Mary J. Blige aspect to this, with many Paramore songs celebrating a victory over drama that turns out to be short-lived by design; without that drama, there’d be no point to the band at all.

The frail and shattered “26” might be the highlight overall, a more universal panacea of acoustic guitar and weeping strings held together by little more than Williams’s wizened gravitas:

It pairs nicely with Taylor Swift’s “Fifteen,” come to think of it, speak of casting a longing glance backward. It’s impressive and instructive to learn that Williams is good at the throwback thing, but her future is still in the future, in redefining what a genuine rock star can look and sound like in 2017. Paramore treats After Laughter as an excellent Halloween costume, but Williams is better off inspiring her many disciples to dress up like her instead. “Nostalgia’s cool / But it won’t help me now,” she purrs on “Caught in the Middle.” She’s right. But for now, it doesn’t hurt much, either.