Within modern rock, Paramore occupy a space that’s pretty much exclusive to them. Their past few album cycles have seen them adopt a style similar to a lot of legacy bands, where they’ll punctuate years at a time of almost total silence with new music and tours in an incandescent spike of hype, something which has allowed them to reach an almost untouchable status within music. Because right now, there isn’t a band out there like Paramore, who are universally liked or at least respected within every corner of alternative music, and can remain so even with the leverage to basically do whatever they want. So with that in mind, the fact that Hayley Williams have effectively filtered that leverage into her own solo career is a pretty inspired move. She’s delivered bits and pieces of solo work and contributions for quite a while now, but the fact that Petals For Armor is coming now instead of amongst all of that – or during the Riot! era where Paramore were comfortably at their commercial peak – is indicative of how much of a passion project this actually is. There’s also the matter of its unorthodox promotional methods, with floods of songs being released on EPs in the months leading up to the full album, a technique that definitely has its limitations but, in itself, shows a project that’s running with any sort of industry reins greatly loosened. If nothing else, the mere existence of Petals For Armor feels like the culmination of an artist who’s spent over half of her life growing and maturing under the scrutinous industry microscope, now reaching an empowered moment of breaking out and doing things entirely her own way.
It’s a sort of meta-text that feeds directly into the text of Petals For Armor, as an open-ended, knowingly imperfect but almost wholly satisfying album. Indeed, this is unquestionably Williams’ own creative vision, both in sound and theme, and executed with a level of care and creativity that, for what is ostensibly a side-project, is pretty rare to see. And while every Paramore album has had some varying degree of personal examination to it, the depth and growth that spans these fifteen tracks brings an exploration that thrives even when divorced from what could be considered the ‘context’ of Williams’ main band. It’s the first time that the focus has been on her by design rather than locked on by third parties out of obligation, and Petals For Armor shows just how far she can run with that notion; it’s much more vulnerable and mature, and as a result, has a weight to it that’s unlike anything Williams has ever put to record before.
That aforementioned sense of maturation and self-realisation is what informs the arc of this album primarily, with a flowing sense of emotion that Williams feels undoubtedly comfortable at laying down, but also has the smaller-scale, insular point of view that makes it work so well as she transitions from years of pent-up afflictions into a headspace that’s more mentally fulfilling for her. It’s why Simmer feels like an ideal opener to immediately begin to purge, loosing her festering anger and leading into further primal, gnawing emotions of grief on Leave It Alone and lust on Sudden Desire, with the early point of catharsis peaking with the venomous broadside against her ex-husband on Dead Horse. But Petals For Armor achieves a lot more by pulling the focus back onto Williams herself, and the process of healing and self-empowerment that she subsequently undergoes. That comes from maintaining distance from negative outside forces and thoughts of her own depression on Creepin’ and Over Yet respectively, but also in the reclaiming of her own femininity with more female-coded imagery of cinnamon on the titular track and flowers on Roses / Lotus / Violet / Iris and Watch Me While I Bloom. And then, in the final leg of the album, she reaches a point where she’s ready to settle down again and find someone new, and as the closer Crystal Clear asserts, she can concentrate on moving forward now that her personal burdens have been shed. It’s an arc which ultimately justifies the near-hour-long runtime of the album; it’s messy but deliberately so, and has the crowded level of detail indicative of an artist with a lot to say, but the need to say it all.
It’s further reflected in the sound of the album as a whole, where indie- and synthpop play a considerable role in what could easily be a continuation from where Paramore currently are, but it’s much more ramshackle and nervy on the whole. The pop focus still provides a foundational core, as shown in the glistening, watery lilt of Dead Horse or spidery synth plucks over the pulsing beat of Sugar On The Rim, but the execution is far closer to insular bedroom-pop in how tight-knit and close it all is. The difference is that Williams clearly has considerably more of a budget to work with, and while connections with that scene are definitely forged (having Boygenius provide backing vocals on Roses / Lotus / Violet / Iris is telling), Petals For Armor’s slighter scale comes across as a lot more natural for Williams as an artist. When she stays in her softer range there’s a clarity that smaller, breezier material helps to amplify, both in terms of pure pop, and in moments like Why We Ever, where the muffled piano and drums ebb back and forth to give the crackle of the atmosphere around them the space to poke through. It’s remarkably intimate and human, a quality that higher-profile releases like this can often lack.
But at the same time, when taken at face value as another indie-pop album, there’s a wealth of creativity here that, while not as equally distributed among all of its fifteen tracks as would be preferable, lands on a far higher ratio of good to bad than the norm. There’s more of an actively playful sensibility that pokes through, almost like Williams and her collaborators are playing around to see what they can get away with at times; Cinnamon builds on its initial stuttered drum line into a bigger, more propulsive roil that still has its ramshackle tendencies, while the bassy shuffle of Creepin’ and the fidgety beat and guitars of Over Yet (which almost have a ring of Girls Aloud’s Love Machine about them) are excellent recontextualisations of modern pop building blocks into something more confined. That’s effectively the case with a lot of the instrumentation here, especially the bass which provides more of a backbone than ever for a setup as minimalist as this. Elsewhere, there’s a crispness and pastel-coloured glow to the synths and strings that lend an almost gummy pop to Pure Love and Taken, but can easily be flipped and muted for more ominous tones like on Simmer and Sudden Desire. Williams is a profoundly sturdy anchor to keep everything in line, but the range of her chameleonic backdrop really does a good job at putting Petals For Armor in a completely different ballpark to so many of its singer-songwriter contemporaries.
As such, Petals For Armor is even a bigger step forward than it was originally projected to be; there was always going to be something to discuss with an artist like Hayley Williams breaking out with a musical venture all to herself, but this level of vividness and candour really couldn’t have been expected when going in with fresh ears. It quite clearly fits the bill of a passion project that’s paid off; it’s certainly rough around the edges and has a tendency to freewheel at times, but there’s a remarkably human core amongst it all that feels incredibly well-developed and realised. Petals For Armor’s greatness ultimately comes as a coalescence of all of those factors, honed in for an intriguing and colourful listen that has a much greater purpose at the centre, and can clearly map out its path to reveal that purpose over time. As well as being wonderfully rich and accessible on top of all of that, this is the sort of album that’ll no doubt have a lot more staying power than solo projects like this often do.
For fans of: Lights, The Aces, MUNA
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Petals For Armor’ by Hayley Williams is out now on Atlantic Records.