As if by some regenerative property of pop punk, Paramore’s Hayley Williams is still under the age of 30. For many who came into musical consciousness in the mid 2000’s, pop punk is the Proustian madeleine par excellence: revisiting hits like My Chemical Romance’s I’m Not Okay, Taking Back Sunday’s Makedamnsure, or Paramore’s Misery Business can be like throwing on that favourite Hot Topic tee, rolling into home room, and experiencing the angst and romances of puberty anew. A decade on from its heyday, its initially-perceived adolescence has grown into something much larger: for many it is adolescence; it distilled the essence of the time much more thoroughly than any other memento from those years could to conjure up. The heroes of that era were made to die young in some way, or at least were supposed to - a mediocre release, a shift in direction, the inevitable introduction of a new sound was enough to swing the volatile, hormone-ridden pendulum of the preteen mind off in a new direction, to pursue another caprice, until a year or two later and the band is suddenly no more, or making music for someone who is no longer you, or, worst of all, they’re just old and living off the revenue of playing the hits at the local Vans Warped Tour stop; and it’s just depressing. “You say that I’ve been changing/That I’m not simply aging/How could that be logical?” Hayley Williams sung that in 2009 on Playing God. It was then a defiant song about fighting back and standing up for yourself; now it sounds like a eulogy written for someone who doesn’t realize they are dying.
2009’s Brand New Eyes, the album on which that track appeared, would be the last pop punk album Paramore made. Plagued by bandmate turmoil that would result in the departure of founding members Josh and Zac Farro, it would be four years until they released their next album, Paramore. With that record they fully transformed into a band that could slot under the ever-nebulous heading of “alt rock”, just as comfortable with filling out stadium-size venues as they once were with mall parking lots. On Grow Up Williams said it best herself: “Some of us have to grow up sometimes/If I have to I’m gonna leave you behind”. It wasn’t a bad record - Williams proved that the pop in “pop-punk” is what survives in the end, while simultaneously helping to clarify that this whole modern day “alt rock” thing is just commercial pop music rebranded for a more “individually minded” consumer, like the organic counterpart to a sugary soft drink - but it was like seeing an ex-lover for the first time years after the break up. They were confident in their surroundings, doing well, had clearly moved on from the past, and yet, looking at them, you could still see that iridescent glitter in their eyes that wooed you from the start, like nothing ever changed.
With After Laughter, Paramore’s fifth studio album, the band has produced their most bold and mature pop statement to date. If pop punk was precisely that - punk music filtered through the lens of pop - After Laughter is pop-punk filtered through the lens of new wave. This is Paramore at their most colorful, their most unabashedly fun, and undoubtedly their most creative.
To be sure, new wave as a genre label comes with its own set of complications and is often viewed as a catchall term for a certain outflow of punk music that started to appear in the late 70’s to mid 80’s, and as such seems to have more value as simply a historical marker rather than as a designation of a particular sound (similar to the way that the “alt rock” genre of Paramore’s self-titled album plays into a specific form of rock-oriented pop music that is particular to the late 00’s and early to mid 10’s). And in truth, perhaps a bigger influence on the album other than the new wave stylings is Paramore themselves. Every release of theirs seeks an (occasionally) tedious balance between the angst-ridden, fist-in-the-face pop punk numbers and the more mellow and (occasionally) innocuous ballad driven numbers. It’s never all Misery Business. The thread throughout these styles is always the strength Williams’ voice, which doesn’t always need a strong hook to build a song around - the sheer range and force of her voice is enough.
The difference this time around is that, despite the neon glitz of its 80s new wave veneer, After Laughter seems to be Paramore’s darkest record to date. On highlight track Told You So Williams repeats the lines “Throw me into the fire/Pull me out again” over a smooth, pulsing guitar melody, like she’s been down so long she’s learned to find enjoyment in its constant renewal. The biggest pop numbers on the album are joyous and effortlessly orchestrated, yet serve as the ecstatic backdrops for some of the most starkly confrontational lyrics Williams has ever written. “I’m right at the end of my rope/A half empty girl/Don’t make me laugh, I’ll choke” she sings on Rose-Colored Boy. On Fake Happy Williams begins the track at her most despondent, just barely able to sing out the lines “We’re all so fake happy” over a quiet acoustic guitar before the song evolves into a pretty, relatively simple synth pop number. When she sings the lines “My smile, my teeth!” over a staccato synth line it’s infectious, almost so much so that you can hardly imagine this person can be that sad if she’s able to pull off moves that captivating.
On Hard Times, one of the strongest tracks on the album, Williams sings, “Tell my friends I’m coming down/We’ll kick it when I hit the ground.” To the longtime Paramore fan, this should be a familiar refrain. Turn It Off from Brand New Eyes also finds Williams finding solace in that sunken feeling: “We’re heading for a cliff/And in the free fall I will realize/I’m better off when I hit the bottom”. In both cases it’s trademark Paramore; but the difference between the two tracks is night and day. The earlier track, and album as a whole, was a provocation to the guitar-driven, male-dominated pop punk scene; no one could captivate an audience better than Hayley Williams in peak form. The later track is colorful and playful, and completely without precedent in their discography, a certain recognition that they are free to experiment in new directions having spent their early years building up and burning down every Vans Warped Tour stage on this side of the world and the other. When the track throws in an italo-disco style vocoder synth in its final moments, it’s dizzying and brilliant and stupidly catchy all in the same breath.
After Laughter lags where Paramore has lagged in the past - once again, there are ballad numbers like 26 that just aren’t as interesting and seem even-more-so out of place in the course of the album’s new-wave inflections - but even accounting for that, this is somehow the band’s strongest release to date; and that is confusing, to say the least, because, like many who were ushered through the vertiginous years of adolescence under the wing of Paramore’s riotous pop-punk brilliance, I made it through those years, I moved on, and thought I had consigned Paramore and the legions of pop punk to their rightful place: nostalgia. There were days when I couldn’t look at the neon signage of a mall food court without growing melancholy for the glory days of Hayley Williams’ electric orange hair. But, other than a change in hair color, Williams hardly looks that much older than she did when she first lit up my angst-ridden teenage mind. She’s still young - not yet even in her thirties - and with After Laughter she’s suddenly turned everything around, picking up our backwards-facing heads and pointing towards a promising pop future.
Pop punk is a relic; Paramore is forever.
Words: Andrew Ward