In retrospect, an album like this was quite easy to predict. As a soloist, Hayley Williams has become much more deeply ingrained in a homespun, relatable indie mindset, the obvious polar opposite from the giant pop machine that is Paramore, and that’s clearly manifested in a more liberated approach to making music. As messy as Petals For Armor’s fragmented release strategy was, it certainly felt like an artist working on her own terms, reflected in just how mature and honest that album felt. Then there’s also the fact that, post Taylor Swift’s folklore and evermore, there’s a real swell behind albums like this now, where an artist who might otherwise be caked in artifice strips it all back for a surprise release, showing off more of a grown, poetic side to their artistic persona. At first glance anyway, that’s what FLOWERS for VASES / descansos feels like; the release timing and title certainly make it seem like a companion of sorts to Petals For Armor (with Williams describing it as a prequel of sorts), but at the same time, the vibe of a lived-in quarantine album, written and recorded in Williams’ home, is distinctly its own thing. Even so, as an extension of the branched-out creativity that Williams’ solo work has displayed so far, FLOWERS for VASES… at least arrives with a good platform beneath it, and the knowledge that this could be a really interesting experiment if nothing else.
Actually though, ‘experiment’ mightn’t be the most accurate turn of phrase, given that FLOWERS for VASES… winds up pretty much as expected, as a brittle, unburdened release that forgoes any flash in favour of getting right down to the emotions at its core. In the purest essence, it’s exactly the parallel to both of Taylor Swift’s most recent albums that it was intended to be, but that quite hold as strongly when giving it a deeper look. Indeed, it feels more like a prequel to Petals For Armor than a companion piece, and making that designation from the off proves to be a wise move when it’s still arriving in the shadow of its predecessor. It’s not as good as that album, but Williams’ intentions here feel different overall, to the point where comparing the two outside of the narrative they’re forming doesn’t really seem worth it on the whole. That said, there’s definitely still a lot going for FLOWERS for VASES…, as a necessary next step for Williams to take as a solo artist that shows her creative malleability, and a command of the insularity that indie-folk albums like this need to work.
It’s where most of the discussion around FLOWERS for VASES… will undoubtedly centre, showing the breakdown of the relationship that Petals For Armor was moving on from, and operating as the inward-looking foil to an album that was primarily focused on growing outwards. She’s aware of the toxicity of the relationship and knows it need to be cut off on Asystole, though that comes after First Thing To Go and My Limb, trying to rationalise a reason to stay despite how unhealthy it is. Even when it does finally end, there’s the delayed acceptance on Over Those Hills and Good Grief of a relationship closing that’s lasted so long, and the desire to get back to a place of earlier innocence on Wait On and Inordinary, before fame and immense pressure changed her so drastically. But ultimately, it’s for the best, and even though No Use I Just Do and Find Me Here reveals that the feelings of love haven’t gone away, the toll on her own mental health for trying to fix everything is too much for just herself to handle, and breaking free of it is the only way to move forward. The sense of struggle and self-doubt throughout is palpable, but there’s also a plain-spoken vulnerability that really connects, especially on an album like this. It really does feel like a woman laying her emotions bare from the solitude of her own home, where the emotions can flow and reshape themselves across the narrative as acceptance inches its way into the frame. It’s all very quietly executed too, with Williams typically staying in a tender lower register that amplifies the intimacy of it all. Even just from the standpoint of writing, she’s tapped into the softer poetry that a project like this opens up for, where the imagery can be a bit more out of focus but still have a lot of potency and passion, and where obvious hooks are pushed aside in favour of a slower burn. For the sort of direction that it’s going in, that’s probably the best way for FLOWERS for VASES… to go, and it works consistently well.
Musically though, it’s not quite as impressive, though holding that against the album too much would probably be missing the point. Again, you really only need to look at the sort of album this is to justify why it’s so barebones and stripped-back, largely driven by soft acoustic lines and cushions of reverb with some piano on occasion, before breaking into a thicker indie-rock finale for Just A Lover. It’s meant to let that words take centre stage after all, and even then, there’s still a couple of nice melodies like on the gentle strut of Asystole or the warm lilts and sways of Trigger and Inordinary. It’s nice above all, not doing anything new, but holding onto its own comforting vibe in a way that’s likable throughout. There really isn’t a bad song on here to be truthful, but it’s also the case with real standouts as well. It’s remarkably balance as a project, but it’d also be nice to have some of the greater peaks and troughs that could shape the emotional journey sonically, rather than just dwell on the same tone. It’s what made Petals For Armor a more engaging listen; hell, it’s what made folklore and evermore more engaging listens, in that there was more flow and variety within their emotional centerpieces, without breaking the core conceit. On FLOWERS for VASES…, the tone is there, but it doesn’t feel quite as fluid at times, and that can limit some staying power compared to others like it.
In a way, that makes it even more conducive to a prequel, setting the stage for a narrative that we already know, and providing the context that, above all else, elevates that original work. Looking at it from that perspective, FLOWERS for VASES… succeeds spectacularly, in getting to the root of the vulnerability of that album and showing a different side of it that would eventually grow and blossom into something new. Simultaneously though, it could beg the question of how much longevity this has as its own entity, but this certainly isn’t a throwaway or anything. This is still good, showing Williams in an even more open and honest light than last time, and really digging down to the core of the emotions that have so readily coloured her work lately. She really is nailing the aspect of this sort of singer-songwriter that resonates so heavily, and while that’s not all that surprising, going off the beaten path with FLOWERS for VASES… and largely sticking the landing shows an approach that’s unquestionably paying off.
For fans of: Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, Snail Mail
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘FLOWERS for VASES / descansos’ by Hayley Williams is out now on Atlantic Records.