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Hayley Williams - FLOWERS for VASES / descansos Music Album Reviews

Hayley Williams - FLOWERS for VASES / descansos Music Album Reviews
Working in isolation, the Paramore leader extends the healing narrative of last year’s Petals for Armor with a sparse, unadorned album that casts a mournful glance to the past.

For a career built on fiery catharsis, Hayley Williams’ 2020 album Petals for Armor was an anticlimactic solo turn. For Williams, who lives alone in Nashville, the pandemic-enforced seclusion that followed its release led to an agonizing period of stasis and self-reflection. Petals for Armor was meant to be her big breakup record, her ecstatic rebirth as a vibrant and vivacious force for self-liberation; instead, she had to put off tour plans and sit with her final product, realizing discomfitingly that her pain didn’t evaporate with the album’s release. “You just don’t write a song and then you’re through it,” she said later in an interview. Her 10-year relationship with New Found Glory’s Chad Gilbert—which ended in divorce—apparently could not be processed through 15 bright hooks.
In fits and starts, she started combing through songs she had written over the years—some dating back as far as Paramore’s 2017 release After Laughter—piecing together recordings that continued the healing narrative. The resulting collection, FLOWERS for VASES / descansos, paints a more modest picture of heartbreak. If Petals for Armor danced on the graves of her failed romances, FLOWERS for VASES revisits their tombstones with a mournful glance at what had been.

FLOWERS for VASES is essentially Williams’ first true solo endeavor. In spirit and execution, Petals for Armor felt like an extension of her work with her band: Paramore guitarist Taylor York helped compose almost all of the songs on the album, while its uptempo melodies picked up where After Laughter left off. By contrast, Williams wrote and performed FLOWERS for VASES entirely alone. Her choices here reveal a songwriter more indebted to the arpeggiated guitar of a ’70s folk singer like Sibylle Baier than the power chords of mall punk. The acoustic finger picking on “Wait On” and “HYD” feels immediately familiar, as if pulled from a book of folk standards. Her melodies, both on the guitar and on her maudlin, muted piano, are unpretentious and unadorned, their minimal flourishes reflective of her isolated environment. Williams doesn’t innovate on the basics, but for a singer who has long hidden anger behind blown-out reverb and larger-than-life synths, her pared-back instrumentation feels like a modest yet purposeful reset.

Williams’ voice is undoubtedly the standout feature of her band, both husky and gentle, dangerous yet warm. On Petals for Armor it was chopped to bits, used as syncopated rhythm rather than as a central force within the album’s bubbly melodies. But with only an acoustic guitar and piano to hide behind, here her voice sounds refreshed. The extended vowels on “First Thing to Go” glide as if she just sighed them into being. She rarely reaches for the sharp, emotive peaks of her multi-octave range, but instead approaches songs softly. On “Over Those Hills,” her low register sounds gravely and almost weary, but it fits the relaxed nostalgia of the song, like an old friend recalling an ex-lover over a morning cigarette. The album’s minimal production suits her reflective demeanor—her humming shakes beneath her wary guitar strumming; her falsetto hints at her full-throated capabilities, but keeps the album grounded in the spirit of solitude. There are no obvious singles or earworms, but more so than Petals for Armor, FLOWERS for VASES takes a step closer to healing.

The album’s shortcomings also reflect the work of a lead singer who’s just starting to find her own voice. Without a band to grow ideas from seedlings into full-fledged songs, lyrical motifs fall flat. Williams makes admirable attempts to paint the difficult dissolution of love with nuance—“Inordinary” draws a striking connection between her marriage and her troubled childhood with equal parts sadness and strength. But she more often turns to platitudes, which the album’s sparse instrumentation places on full display. She has a knack for winking metaphors—a rabbit gnawing on a shotgun, an amputation without a tourniquet—but sometimes gets lost in her own cleverness, repeating phrases until they lose their potency. Her words get in the way of the texture of her voice, mixed so prominently that clumsy writing becomes impossible to ignore. The album’s penultimate song proves that rule by exception: With only a field recording and a piano, “Descansos” strikes a plaintive, contemplative note that suggests Williams might have even more to say as a composer and producer than solely as a lyricist.

FLOWERS for VASES’ second title, descansos, refers to markings placed at the side of the road in memoriam. It’s a fitting framework for Williams’ second solo record, which reflects on the death of her marriage without the ceremonial embellishment of a proper burial. It’s also the first album that feels entirely hers, one that only works outside of the framework of Paramore. “I can barely remember what it feels like to belong to myself,” she recalled thinking while writing the album. On the final track, she approaches the closest thing to a personal mantra: “No more music for the masses.” These aren’t songs for a crowd, but Williams seems finally ready to play for an audience of one.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Hayley Williams - FLOWERS for VASES / descansos Music Album Reviews Hayley Williams - FLOWERS for VASES / descansos Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Thursday, February 18, 2021 Rating: 5

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