Here’s a bit of a hot take—the excitement around Paramore is often far more overplayed than what comes from them. That might take some elaboration, seeing as Paramore remain one of modern rock’s most universally loved bands, who’ve incidentally never put out an outright bad album in their almost two decades of existence. And when that’s the case, it isn’t at all surprising for the fanbase to get whipped into a frenzy when new music does arrive, seeing as this is a band who’ll drop a new album once every half-decade or so, with effective radio silence in between.
But after 2013’s self-titled album—an album which more than ever felt like a rebirth with something to prove, and accomplished in with a combination of glorious excess and some of their best-ever songs—there was always going to be a natural decline as far as the ‘event’ side of Paramore albums go. That album did feel like an event; After Laughter in 2017, meanwhile, was a natural, needed, scaled-back comedown from that. And that’s honestly fine, as that album was a real grower, and continued the newer narrative of Paramore offering more than just instant-grat pop-rock hits.
At the same time though, it was also indicative of where the mismatch between the output and the cult of personality around it fell. To many, a band once known for being as notoriously fractious as Paramore putting out new music at all is cause for celebration, regardless of what that music may be. Hell, for a mixed as the overall reception to Hayley Williams’ solo pandemic-era work was (albums which, for the record, haven’t been immune to the remarkably short half-lives of most releases between 2020 and 2021), the reliable minute-one reaction was unfettered adulation. Especially with those albums—FLOWERS for VASES / descansos in particular—they aren’t really built to field that kind of intensity. They’re small-scale and low-key, embodying the more DIY sensibilities that Paramore have accommodated to in recent years, in ethos if not in sound.
And that’s why it feels beneficial to approach This Is Why at arm’s length. Of course when the title track was released as its lead single, the swell around it was enormous and immediately proclaimed it as the unequivocal best thing ever. But as with most things surrounding Paramore lately, it’s likely to be more complicated than that. On an album openly drawing from post-punk and detaching the final frayed cords of their previous life in pop-punk, it’s simply not built to bear that kind of reaction. Much more so than many of their former peers, Paramore have outgrown the stan culture phenomenon, and when that side of the argument is still beating back and trying to persist despite any of that (not to mention, crucially, how easy it can be to become enamoured by it), the space left open to come crashing down is cavernous.
And with This Is Why as a whole, it might sound harsh but there’s really not much to it to get excited for. That’s not to say it’s bad, but its decisions and the avenues it takes really do shoulder the weight of compromise. This is coming out in 2023 after all, where post-punk is its most visible in years and has the freedom to cut loose and bring in a darkness or a more progressive edge. As for what Paramore add to the conversation with their version of it, it’s not much. They’re still shackled to pop accessibility at the end of the day, and there’s a restrictiveness to that on this album specifically that’s hard to shake.
The production comes across as the greatest hindrance seeing how, on an album in which Paramore clearly want to cut loose a bit more, it offers the total antithesis of that. When it’s weighted in favour towards the rhythm section, not only are the guitars are chronically underweight, but there’s a general stifling going on that really thins it all out. On Figure 8 or Crave, the efforts to split the difference between post-punk and pop-rock are strident, and there’s a staleness to the tone that can be hard to overlook. Of course the vibrancy of past efforts is going to be diminished by the simple nature of this new palette of sounds, but it’s the way that This Is Why’s stock of ideas seems to visibly diminish and dry out as it progresses that takes hold the firmest. Paramore have never felt this small or inconsequential before; they’ve always had a spitting, dancing fire that’s been severely tamped back here.
The album is unquestionably front-loaded as a result. That’s really where said stock is at its freshest, when they’re more brazen in pulling out the jittery guitars and free-walking bass and drums, and really making the most of what they’re setting out to do. The title track remains the strongest example of that, as the bass bubbles away and leaves noteworthy negative space, before the splashier riff punches in for easily the album’s standout hook. Elsewhere, there’s a cleaner fusion of the pop-rock end with The News and You First, without neglecting a spaciousness that keeps the peaks and troughs defined. There’s also C’est Comme Ça, thrown off the back of the riff from Hard-Fi’s Hard To Beat into arguably the purest strain of post-punk here, in Williams’ more austere low register that she pulls off actually rather well.
That’s all good stuff, where This Is Why finds its most solid footing. Maybe it struggles to compete with Paramore’s absolute best, but it shows an application of where they are now that can work for them. The difference is in the inconsistency, something that’s seldom been an issue for Paramore, but appears here in earnest. To put it simply, maybe this isn’t the best form for them to take overall, this less varnished, deliberately less vibrant approach that unmasks a fair share of weakness. Where a song like Big Man, Little Dignity succeeds as a more fluttery, soft-rock pivot—something which, in the flutes and clarinets and incredibly soft multi-tracked vocals, is something Paramore have toyed with in the past—trying to replicate it on Liar or Thick Skull doesn’t sit in the same way.
It might then seem contradictory to say that This Is Why has no outright bad songs, but that’s also true. The songwriting acumen that Paramore have sharpened to the finest of points over the years is obvious, and even as the album progresses into some more meandering or flat moments, it’s never irredeemable. There is something to be said for that too, if only because Hayley Williams is a reliably great frontwoman that always serves as an albatross of quality, even when it’s a bit more nebulous around her. She’s belting less, but that’s replaced with something more rubbery and electrified on the title track and The News, or a floatier, gentler side on Big Man, Little Dignity or Thick Skull. In between them, it’s more a showcase of the quietly understated charisma that regularly goes uncelebrated from her, but does a lot of good work to stabilise This Is Why.
Of course, there’s a part of that attributed to how this is effectively Paramore’s pandemic album, in channelling the greater uncertainty—both on a macro and micro level—in the six years since their last. The title track is as blunt as mission statements go, just looking to keep away from the fatalism and volatile tribalism that’s become such an unfortunate, tiresome norm over the past few years, for the sake of Williams’ own sanity. The News tries for something similar but is less smartly crafted; even if the conceit of switching off when everything gets too much is sound, it could do with some fresher imagery than “War […] On the other side of the planet” to get there.
Overall though, the general sentiments at play are decently executed, if not exactly straying far past the norm of an album like this. The inundation of pandemic albums ensures that’s rather nailed-on, even if Paramore’s is a lot more intricately written and keeps away from the utter default. That’s true even when it doesn’t click musically; This Is Why sees the opportunity to hammer in on more literary character, and takes it with both hands. By far, that comes across most on Liar, in which Williams addresses her relationship with guitarist Taylor York, and the difficult, uncomfortable feelings that come from falling for someone so platonically close for so long. A lot of cute lyrical turns and genuine vulnerability give it the charm that most strong Paramore songs have, a testament to an ability that’s still here in droves.
It’s just a shame that a lot of This Is Why doesn’t feel the same, instead acting as an honourable but ineffective halfway house for Paramore to try and get something new for themselves down. It goes without saying that it’s their weakest album, but even that comes with some major caveats. It’s still not without quality, by any means, and as a mainstream band making such a sizable overhaul as this in one fell swoop, that’s a commendable effort on principle alone. It’s just a bit of a difficult pill to swallow, the album that everyone wants to love—and whether they do or just say it to save face is immaterial—but more than likely won’t persist past the honeymoon phase. But when the album’s very first line is “If you have an opinion / Maybe you should shove it”, there can’t be a lack of self-awareness on Paramore’s part.
For fans of: Bloc Party, Blondie, Interpol
‘This Is Why’ by Paramore is out now on Atlantic Records.
Words by Luke Nuttall