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Hayley Williams - Petals for Armor Music Album Reviews

The Paramore singer’s debut solo album is emotionally vulnerable and musically ambitious, one that finds catharsis and enlightenment in the brambles of experimental pop production. 

The use of voice memos in pop music—whether the dry, abstract interludes of Sonic Youth or the litany of voicemails throughout hip hop history—necessarily signals a pause, a moment to listen closely. But rather than a message from a missed connection or words of wisdom from a mentor, the new record from Paramore’s singer Hayley Williams features an intimate dispatch from her home. With her goldendoodle Alf barking in the background, Williams describes, sheepishly, a potential delay in the production process: “Uh, sorry, I was in a depression,” she offers by way of explanation. Trailing off, she adds, “Trying to come out of it now…” That moment of quiet reflection, understated in its depiction of the murkiness inherent to mental health, is an exemplary snapshot from her solo debut, Petals for Armor: intense emotional vulnerability couched in the creature comforts of her homestead.
As Williams describes it, Petals for Armor began as an organic outgrowth of extreme introspection—specifically intensive, full-body therapy through a process called EMDR, in which the person in treatment is asked to recall distressing imagery, processing the experience through sensory input under the guidance of a therapist. For Williams, whose 2017 was marked with both immense highs—the release of Paramore’s triumphantly pop-oriented After Laughter—and definitive lows—a divorce from her partner of 10 years—therapy invoked powerful, at times grotesque imagery of nature. “I started having this vision where I was so gross, covered in dirt and soil, and there were vines and flowers,” she recounted. But that surreal vision became a sign of the inherent power and resilience in a body so outwardly fragile and feminine. Williams began writing songs around the same period, at the advice of a therapist.
On Petals for Armor—originally released as three distinct EPs—Williams traces a meandering, multi-faceted path to recovery, one that might ring familiar to anyone who’s undergone the taxing process of intensive therapy. “Leave It Alone,” one of the earliest songs Williams wrote for the record, addresses the cruelty and irony of loss with chilling clarity: “If you know how to love/Best prepare to grieve,” she sings, her voice tipping upward, knowingly, on the last word of each line. The instrumentation, thick with gently sloping violins, brings to mind a post-rock dirge, invoking the leaden air of mourning without veering into maudlin sap.

On “Rose/Lotus/Violet/Iris,” joined by the disaffected chorus of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus, she conjures a similarly haunted atmosphere, opening with ghostly, swirling vocals dense with delay. But despite the overcast mood, the lyrics hesitantly tell a story of regrowth. Through floral metaphors—“he loves me now, he loves me not,” wilting and blooming—she captures the history of women’s suffering, gesturing to intergenerational trauma without falling into hackneyed, broad-sweeping statements of feel-good empowerment. These hazy moments, which often reveal their depths only upon repeated listen, invoke a careful, considered path to self-love, one that doesn’t avoid its darker corners.

The more hushed tones scattered throughout the album contrast her bolder statements, the musical equivalents of sudden breakthroughs. On “Cinnamon,” an uptempo ode to the comforts of nesting and making a home, Williams creates layered melodies with her vocals, beginning with animalistic yells of “ahh” and “ooh” and taking a sharp turn with highly syncopated, all-business enunciation on the versus: “Home is where I’m feminine/Smells like citrus and cinnamon,” she sings cooly, moving through the syllables of the final words like a percussive triplet. Here, as on “Creepin’,” with its robotic digital processing, Williams’ vocals sound towering and all-encompassing, as if she’s not simply claiming her power through words, but through taking up more space in the mix.

Though the strength of Petals for Armor is derived from the complexities inherent in self-actualization, it is, at times, weakened by its musical and lyrical scope. Shifts in mood, as when the downtempo, shuffling ode to friendship “My Friend” leads into the propulsive synth-pop anthem “Over Yet,” are slightly jarring within the progression of the album, even if they’re expected within the context of therapeutic treatment. And after rage and recovery are discussed with such nuanced sensitivity early on in the record, it’s disappointing to hear her sing about love and sensuality with easy platitudes, as on the sophomoric refrain of “Taken.”

Occasionally, these shifting moods occur within the span of a single song, as on “Dead Horse.” The song opens with that candid voice recording, which fades discomfitingly into bright, party-ready synths. Though it’s not new for Paramore to hide dark lyrics—the song details Williams’ affair with her now-ex-husband—within fluorescent melodies, the carefree nature of the somewhat-tropical house production can come off as if Williams is wearing a costume, playing the role of scorned ex through the lens of a dancehall singer. “Watch Me While I Bloom,” with its upbeat jazz rhythm and winking lyrics, similarly grates with its forced brightness, Williams’ cheery delivery coming across like a precocious lead actor in a school play.

But even these weaker moments are small inside a record that is revelatory in its breadth, a manifestation of trust between its personnel: Taylor York, the record’s sole producer, and Zac Farro, who provided instrumentation, are long-time Paramore bandmates, lifers after the group’s many tumultuous shake-ups; Joey Howard, who helped pen several songs, is the band’s touring bassist. Somewhat counterintuitively, considering the familiarity among the players, the record, at its best, transcends the boundaries defined by their previous music, creating new soundscapes that recontextualize Williams’ powerful tenor.

“Crystal Clear,” a pared-back march into the terrifying unknown, showcases the malleability of her voice. Beginning with woozy synths, the song picks up rhythm with skittering drum blasts, both of which take a backseat as soon as Williams’ swinging vocal enters. Here, Williams flows with the thematic current, her voice swaying and hanging heavy as she discusses overcoming romantic hang-ups. But by the time it reaches the chorus’ simple, hesitantly hopeful refrain, there’s a distinct lightness in her vocals, the relief palpable as she repeats, “Won’t give in to the fear.” We’re left with a vision of Williams that mirrors the strongest moments on Petals for Armor, one that takes the long way to enlightenment.

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