Music

Punk-pop icons Paramore grapple with a viper-tongued youthful legacy in their fascinating but uneven sixth album, This Is Why. By Shaad D’Souza.

Paramore's This Is Why

The album cover of Paramore’s This Is Why.
The album cover of Paramore’s This Is Why.
Credit: Supplied

It’s not an overstatement to describe Hayley Williams, the incandescent singer and songwriter at the centre of stalwart pop-punk band Paramore, as the most influential musician of her generation. While many of the angsty, one-hit bands with whom Paramore rose to fame have long since fizzled out, Williams and her bandmates are still at it, and their famous fans are vocal about their admiration.

Weirdo superstar rapper Lil Uzi Vert described Williams as his primary influence, while Willow Smith has said that her rage-filled pop-rock is the result of her high school fandom of Paramore. Steve Lacy, who recently netted a No. 1 single in America and filled arenas over here, told me in an interview that Paramore “raised” him. Indie musicians Soccer Mommy and Snail Mail saw Williams’ status as the lone woman in the male-dominated early-aughts pop-punk scene and were inspired to make music themselves. And Williams’ image has resonated far beyond music: Symone, the winner of the 13th season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, took to the runway in one episode wearing a ridiculously exaggerated orange wig in tribute to Williams’ choppy, luridly toned 2000s ’do.

There’s a danger in such intense acclaim. Much of the adoration for Paramore is directed specifically at the band’s 2007 album Riot!, which yielded the single “Misery Business” and crystallised the image of Williams as a howling, sometimes outright vengeful songwriter – which, to be clear, was all part of the appeal of both Paramore and the genre itself.

That characterisation can be stifling, especially for a band looking to move past youthful rage and make music about more grown-up concerns. Paramore themselves – currently Williams, drummer Zac Farro and guitarist Taylor York, who is also Williams’ boyfriend – seem to have struggled with the legacy of Riot!. For a while they refused to perform “Misery Business” because Williams said the song’s lyrics – “Once a whore, you’re nothing more” – were sexist. The band broadened their sound and style: Williams wrote about the joys of marriage on 2013’s Paramore and drew from new wave, Afrobeat and post-punk on 2017’s After Laughter.

This Is Why, Paramore’s sixth album, finds Williams and co returning to spiky, adrenaline-fuelled rock music. It’s not a pop-punk record – the primary influence on This Is Why is, curiously, Bloc Party, the British post-punk quartet whose albums Silent Alarm and A Weekend in the City became defining documents of 2000s indie. But it does play like an album seeking an answer to the question: what would it sound like if a songwriter who inspired an entire generation with urgent, soul-baring but undeniably juvenile rock as a 19-year-old tried to recapture a similar energy as a 34-year-old? Or: how does a pop-punk band grow up?

The resulting album is great but also wildly uneven – at times deeply incisive, at others terribly hokey, often in a way that feels reminiscent of a lot of hackneyed, post-Trump resistance art. This Is Why is Paramore’s most outwardly political album and its most political songs are far and away its weakest. Williams is staunchly liberal and often uses interviews and social media platforms to discuss social causes such as reproductive rights and Black Lives Matter. She is thoughtful and more engaged than a lot of stars of her ilk – like her bandmates, she is Christian, and she has expressed that much of the political consciousness she displays is reflective of real-time learning.

But as a political songwriter she too often falls flat, churning out lyrics that feel reminiscent of facile Twitter discourse or that lack any real sting. “This Is Why” is one of Paramore’s best sounding songs – jerky and discordant, it plays like a pop star’s take on early no wave, Farro’s simmering drums and York’s noodling guitar unaffected by the rigidity and compression that usually comes along with major label rock records. Williams’ lyrics, though, are vague and almost posturing, alluding to societal unease without really pinpointing their own message: “This is why I don’t leave the house / You say the coast is clear but you won’t catch me out.”

There’s something frustratingly illusory about the conceit of “This Is Why”. Williams’ lyrics are both obscurantist and strangely literal, placing them into a bizarre zone where they don’t warrant close reading or provide the immediate adrenaline rush of many of the band’s best tracks. The band members have said much of This Is Why’s political side was inspired by living in the American south during Covid and Black Lives Matter, attempting to contend with the legacy of conservative politics while living through a pandemic. That’s a meaty hook, but the band rarely delivers on its promise – too often, Williams defaults to lyrical formlessness.

The worst culprit of this by far is “The News”, written about information overload. The song’s tone is polemical – Williams contorts her lovely, acrobatic voice into a yelp not unlike the one that characterised much of Paramore’s early work – but seems mostly to be imploring listeners to pay attention, a decidedly limp crux for a polemic. “Every second our collective heart breaks / All together, every single heart shakes / Shut your eyes but it won’t go away,” she sings. Her tone is condemnatory but it’s hard to say what’s being condemned. “The News” lacks Williams’ former bite and specificity, and although there are flashes of a thornier, more interesting song – “I worry and I give money and I feel useless behind this computer” – it fails to materialise, the high-octane post-punk shuffle racing to a soft conclusion.

These songs are extremely fun to listen to but there’s also something kind of exhausting about them. They’re almost naggy in tone, a dangerous zone for any political song to fall into. This is not to say that Williams’ writing is completely blunted: many songs on This Is Why have an acidic, misanthropic edge, most often when Williams is writing about herself and her own privilege. On the funky, simmering “Running Out of Time” she sings in a deliciously arch deadpan about the irony of wealthy people complaining about not having any time to do anything – “Why we gotta be in a rush? My watch is just for decoration / Look, I showed up early for once” – and possesses a wry, self-critical edge. It manages to capture the viper-tongued spirit of earlier Paramore records without being diaristic or particularly cruel, revealing a surprising flair for subtlety and satire.

Similarly, “C’est Comme Ça”, which seems to nod to early Arctic Monkeys, is brilliantly petulant, Williams using droll spoken word to complain about the dull day-to-day workings of adult life – quitting coffee, chiropractic appointments and the like. These songs are deft and almost confrontational in their spirit without resorting to cliché or pat truism.

As on After Laughter, Williams greatly expands how she uses her voice, to dazzling effect. While “C’est Comme Ça” and “Running Out of Time” find her dipping into a waggish lower register, she just as often makes her voice stratospheric, as on “Crave”, a blissful ballad that touches, ever so slightly, on the spectral sound of indie-pop bands such as Cocteau Twins, or “Thick Skull”, a song about dealing with the legacy of trauma and on which she momentarily stretches her voice into a howl.

Much of This Is Why’s second half is devoted to softly toned ballads, and they’re some of the most effective of the band’s career, no longer uniformly weak points as they tended to be on past Paramore records. “Liar”, written about Williams’ new romance with York, is dazed and beautiful, Williams spending much of its run time singing over an understated, largely unadorned beat. “Big Man, Little Dignity” builds from tense frustration to a grand chorus that feels like a pressure valve being released. Pop-punk is built around white-knuckle tension and moments of intense relief, and Paramore use that pedigree to great effect, filling the album with sharp, gut-punching changes in dynamics.

Sometimes those wild dynamic shifts are built into the structure of the album itself – it’s jarring to move from the empty politics of “The News” into something witty and needling like “C’est Comme Ça”. For the most part, though, This Is Why feels like an effective exercise in updating the anxiety and angst of Paramore’s original music with new complexity and subtlety. It’s not necessarily an easy thing to see your influence come to bear across the culture – especially when you’ve released a relatively small amount of music – but This Is Why suggests that Williams and co are far from a legacy band. Even with its edges softened, their music still has fighting spirit.

 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 11, 2023 as "How to grow up".

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