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Lindsey Byrnes
COMMENTARY

Paramore Become Limitless

Notes on the band’s new album, ‘After Laughter’

In the beginning, Paramore were more legend than band. In some scenes, they were mostly a collection of rumors, collected by people who had yet to see them play. When their first single, 2005’s “Pressure,” began making the rounds on alt-rock radio and in the waning hours of house parties, the speculation about the band was at its most interesting — the most notable whispered tale being that all of the band members were 13-year-old middle school dropouts.

An early Paramore show was an exercise in disjointed fun. It was easy to realize that they were, in fact, kids — not 13, but not much older, either. Lead singer Hayley Williams was only 16 during their early run. What made them such a touchable band within the scene is that they truly faced the scene itself. They were a band of young friends, having the time of their lives onstage; watching them made you feel like you could do the same. They had an uneven stage presence, and it seemed like they could hardly play their instruments, but they were young and reckless, so their onstage fireworks made up for it. They felt like a fun after-school project gone briefly supernova, exploding in a moment that was built for them to arrive and vanish just as quickly.

Twelve years on, Hayley Williams is still a star. Even in the band’s frantic first days, that's what she was. Williams is the sort of artist who seems to effortlessly fall into stardom without anything that feels overzealous or forced. More specifically, she has always been a pop star, and has been one in a genre that has, for the first half of her career, perhaps not been the best fit for those pop aspirations. She’s larger than life and committed to an ever-evolving vision, which explains her being the only consistent member of Paramore for the band’s now decade-plus tenure.

After Laughter, the band’s fifth studio album, shows its hand in the title. Nothing is funny now, and maybe nothing ever was, despite Williams grinning and half-smirking, half-sneering her way through the majority of Paramore’s previous projects. In the band's pop-punk days, it often seemed like Williams was pushed to perform her angst in contrast to that of the heartbroken boys who fronted nearly every other band in the scene. On After Laughter, her honesty and her weariness are in conversation with each other. The chorus of the second song, “Rose Colored Boy,” lays out the album’s theme: “Just let me cry / A little bit longer / I ain’t gonna smile / If I don’t want to.”

After Laughter is drenched in rich, ’80s-inspired sounds. It could have come out three decades ago and fit in comfortably. An album like this is best made by a band that didn’t fully live through the era it is trying to summon on record (Williams, the oldest member of Paramore, was born in 1988) — people who, like me and much of the band's target audience, view the ’80s primarily through a series of images and relics. Give me the throwback album made by a band using only nostalgia and imagination as a vehicle, not the band trying to present a linear archive of a time past.

After Laughter will only read as a somber, perhaps bitter album to someone who fully bought into Hayley Williams’s joyful surface persona years ago. It bears mentioning that Williams, if she wanted to, could unquestionably seek out solo pop stardom, something that has been evident since Paramore’s second album, 2007’s Riot! She has a flexible and far-reaching vocal range, magnetic stage presence, and the writing chops of someone who knows how to bring an audience to them. Leading Paramore by the collar through a series of sharp evolutions is something it certainly seems like she loves to do, but it is also something that plays as a small sacrifice: an artist sticking with the sometimes tumultuous idea of a band, when there could be something greater on the horizon.

With this in mind, After Laughter makes sense, at this point in her career. It’s the culmination of a series of stressful years following Paramore's 2013 self-titled album, which drew critical acclaim and more commercial success than any Paramore album before it. In interviews leading up to After Laughter, Williams has talked openly about how making another album seemed like an impossible task, how the band, weighed down by creative differences and the stresses of success, didn’t want to make another album. After Laughter doesn’t entirely sound like a band that doesn’t want to make music together anymore, but it does sound like a band tired of faking joy for the sake of an audience, which is much more refreshing. On “Fake Happy,” Williams sings, “I'm gonna draw my lipstick wider than my mouth / And if the lights are low they'll never see me frown,” and it feels like she is lifting a weight off of her shoulders.

Despite the bright and airy production, the album is rife with dark musings about the minutiae of sadness, distance, and isolation. Songs like “Caught in the Middle” and “26” feel like updates on Paramore’s original teen anxieties, rebuilt for a more grown audience. In “Idle Worship,” Williams takes the trope of a famous person rejecting fame and puts a biblical spin on it, summoning ideas of false idolatry driven by fear. The narrative thread running through the entire album is the idea of a band and an artist who have been on the train a little too long, finally considering a jump.

Maybe this sounds sad. But this is growing up — actual growing up, meaning taking stock of your life and who you have hurt, or how you’ve hurt yourself, and rejecting the parts of yourself that you don’t think look good in the light. Paramore, born into a scene of boys living through their second, third, and fourth childhoods, came to a fork in the road and chose to stare the looming idea of adulthood in the face, head-on, and not just as some performative trip. Every Paramore album is better than the last, in lyrical content, maturity, and sober introspection. And there has to be a place for this in pop, even when it is drenched in the idealized scenery of neon and vintage tees. It’s the second piece to the puzzle: If you’re going to borrow a sound from an era you didn’t live through, you’ve got to tell the stories from the eras you did. Paramore have made themselves a band with no limits. Nothing is surface or artificial anymore. There is no fear that is too sacred to share.

The last song on the album is “Tell Me How,” an exhausted-sounding piano-driven ballad teeming with vague lyrics about regret and moving on. Williams, facing an unspecified “you,” demands answers: “Tell me how to feel about you now.” In context with the rest of the album, it feels entirely possible that Williams is here, at the end of it all, speaking to an old version of herself — one of the many that she has shed to get to where she is now, on the cusp of 30 years old with more questions than answers.

Monday was the 10th anniversary of the Paramore song “ Misery Business,” from Riot! It is their most explosive and notably thrilling single, the one in which Hayley Williams made her case as a superstar. The song’s content, much like a lot of song content in its particular pop-punk era, is about exacting revenge on a mischievous woman. "Misery Business" is still good for a late-night sing-along, but it hasn’t aged particularly well, especially in contrast with Paramore’s more interior-facing music now. But it made sense at the time: Williams and her fellow band members were teenagers, and the song was a romp through what felt like deliciously scathing high school drama, overdone with the shaming of a woman who's not up to the narrator's standards, anchored by the bitter lyrics, “Second chances, they don’t ever matter / People never change.”

On the day of the anniversary, Williams sent out a tweet. First, a GIF: Her in the "Misery Business" video, a shock of bright red-orange hair dragging itself along her face, while she half-sneers and half-smiles into the camera, the word “RIOT!” behind her plastered on the wall in various sizes. Then the tweet itself: “amazing how much ppl *can* change. (mostly within). happy 10 years Miz Biz, u backward-minded lil rascal! & thank you for the life lessons.”

Hayley Williams isn’t who she was. With any luck, after a decade, none of us are.