Album: After Laughter
In Brief: As one of the many rock bands giving themselves a “pop makeover” these days, Paramore does a good job of keeping the music band-oriented and making the lyrics contrast quite sharply with the bouncy music. This is an album that cleverly uses the sugar rush to make the sour parts sting even more. Whether it could be – or should be – a permanent shift in style for the band remains to be seen.
I should probably start this review with another one of those disclaimers that this is gonna be one of those reviews from the perspective of someone who is completely new to a band, and who has heard relatively little of the band’s pre-existing discography. As much as I’d love to digest the back catalogue of every band I review before I write anything about them, this just isn’t feasible in every case, and I’ve already got enough of a fear of trying out a band I’ve never listened to when they have a lot of past work that I acknowledge I’m skipping over. Sometimes I’m just hungry for new music, and the massive list of artists I’m already following hasn’t given me as much new stuff to chew on as they normally do in a given month, and I finally start backtracking to a few of those highly recommended releases folks with tastes similar to mine reviewed last year, hoping I might find a gem that I had initially missed out on.
That most definitely happened with Paramore‘s fifth album, After Laughter, which as I can tell from other people’s reactions to it, marks a pretty big change in the “electronic pop” direction compared to their early sound, which has been variously described as alternative rock, pop-punk, or “emo”. Those who have listened to the band more closely over the years could probably offer much more accurate descriptions, but for me as a bystander, catching only occasional snippets of their songs over the years, I never really heard anything unique enough to compel me to dive in and check out an album of theirs until now. Pretty much any band I enjoyed back when Paramore was getting started and a lot of bands in their particular niche were in their heyday, and that has managed to keep my interest since then, has done so by expanding and experimenting with their sound a great deal – Relient K, for example. I suppose Paramore always had an edge that made them stand out in their genre simply due to having a female singer. But style-wise, I didn’t truly hear anything that piqued my interest until they changed it up on After Laughter. There may well have been stylistic left turns and interesting side journeys in their discography leading up to this point that could have gotten my attention, so I’m not necessarily blaming a lack of diversity for my lack of interest in the past. Maybe some day I’ll go back and discover some of those deep cuts for myself (and even revisit some of the singles that didn’t do much for me the first time around). But when a band changes their sound, they probably assume that they’ll experience a bit of a turnover in their fanbase as a result of it – losing some old fans who can’t roll with it, perhaps, but hopefully gaining new ones in the process. So, as a new fan, I’d like to offer my perspective on how well this gambit seems to be working out for them so far.
Now I should make it clear that I don’t think this change in sound was a cynical move on Paramore’s part. It seems like a lot of rock bands have gravitated more and more towards programmed pop in recent years – some successfully integrating the glitzy, rubbery sounds and 80s nostalgia into their repertoire, and others doing so far less convincingly. Paramore’s take on the genre reminds me a bit of bands like Chvrches and Haim, which I should note are both super-fun, female-fronted groups that I’ve come to hold in high esteem, but not necessarily groups I want to hear a ton of attempts to copy. What makes it work in Paramore’s case is that they’ve retained a live band feel in their performances, and they’ve set up their lyrics, which are often about painful and even downright anger-inducing situations, as a deliberate contrast to the often cheery musical setting. The dissonance works well – allowing lead singer Hayley Williams to express a mixture of vulnerable and confrontational attitudes very much in line with what you might hear from Chvrches frontwoman Lauren Mayberry. The band just isn’t here to be cute, chirpy, and catchy, even if on the surface, those are the first things they hit the listener with. After Laughter is pretty clearly the result of a rough couple of years for the band, and for Hayley in particular, and she’s got some choice words for the people who expect women in rock music to just dance around, look pretty, and not say anything that challenges our sensibilities.
It’s not all glitzy throwaway pop, either. While earworms are abundant among the 12 tracks on this album, some of the most memorable moments are when the group mellows out a bit, or drops in hints of an unexpected genre that even the neon pink 80s revival aesthetic wouldn’t lead you to expect, or even throws a total curveball of an experiment your way. This is one of those records that manages a deft balance between diversity in sound and flowing extremely well from track to track. Those are generally the key ingredients that keep me coming back for that “full album listen” time and time again – too uniform of a sound from one song to the next and I’ll start to tune out during the back half, too jarringly different from track to track and I’ll probably just give up on the album as a whole and mostly listen to isolated tracks as part of a playlist. After Laughter may not be a perfect pop album, nor is it a particularly groundbreaking one, but the band hits it out of the park on both a musical and emotional level time and time again, and that’s an admirable feat for a group this far into its career, especially having started in a genre where it’s far too easy to crank out more of the same from album to album, or even song to song. Paramore keeps it accessible and relateable here without dumbing it down. And I sure wish I’d taken recommendations that I listen to this album seriously in time to consider it for my best-of list at the end of 2017. Oh well. Better After than never.
1. Hard Times
Sometimes hearing the chorus of a song out of context can do it a disservice. It’s hard for me to imagine it now that I’ve gotten incurably hooked on this song, but when I first heard samples of it in a few YouTubers’ reviews of the album, I felt like it was trying way too hard to drive a call-and-response hook home by sheer brute force. Hearing how the song builds up to that chorus hooks, with its nimble percussion, its shimmering guitar licks, and its retro attitude that seems to be somewhere on the boundary between disco-funk and new wave, I’m 100% enthusiastic for that chorus to arrive every time. Hayley’s vocals are unapologetically chirpy here, even though she’s singing about going through a period of deep depression when she was unsure whether Paramore would even make music again. I’m not sure if this comes from the tendency some folks have when they’ve hit an emotional low point to fake it so that others won’t worry about them, or if it’s just a particularly dark sense of humor, but there’s something delightfully absurd about the way she yelps “I gotta get to rock bottom!” at the end of each chorus. It’s also a statement of exasperated truth, as if she knows that she can’t rush the process, but she’d just like to get the lowest of the low points over with already so that she can feel like she’s finally on the rebound. If you find the juxtaposition of the dance-rock vibe and the thoroughly downtrodden lyrics to be jarring, then you should probably be aware that this is the template for most of the album. But despite my initial misgivings, I think it’s a hell of a strong start.
2. Rose-Colored Boy
Without even missing a beat, Paramore launches headlong into their interpretation of 80s dance pop, compete with a cheerleader-like chant right at the top of the song: “Low-key! No pressure! Just hang with me and my weather!” I love this sort of music when it’s got some real live band energy backing it – Taylor York‘s stabby guitar riffs and Zac Farro‘s speedy drum beat pass this test with flying colors. I feel like this song was written for every woman out there who was ever told by a man, “You’d be pretty if you smiled more.” Whether it’s due to misogyny or just the discomfort sunnily optimistic people seem to have with those of us who are more on the side of cynical realism, Hayley’s clearly had it with being told how to feel and what expression to wear on her face. So her lyrics are directed at a naive young man whose rosy worldview she can’t force herself to adopt, and has no interest in trying: “You say we gotta look on the bright side/I say well, maybe if you wanna go blind/You say my eyes are getting too dark now/But boy, you ain’t ever seen my mind.” The chorus, while every bit as catchy as “Hard Times”, feels like it has a slightly more natural hook to it – it’s a little wordier and might not be as primed for audience participation, but it feels like a confident statement about remaining true to oneself rather than faking it. These two songs are far and away the catchiest singles that the album has to offer, but they’re also thematically important in the sense that they make no secret of Hayley’s disdain for inaunthenticity.
3. Told You So
Yet another strong single keeps the tempo up and the performance lively. The reason I don’t cry “sell-out” at the first hint of a previously heavier or more aggressive band like Paramore going “pop” is because they maintain a strong balance between immediacy and intricacy. The beat and the guitar licks are the kind of thing that can hook a listener right away, but they don’t sound like the simplest thing in the world to play, so the band’s not achieving crossover appeal simply by applying glitzy synth sounds and simplistic power chords to what was previously working for them. Hayley’s frustration here with being constantly in the public eye, and people watching her like a hawk for the slightest hint of a slip-up just so they can rub it in her face, is duly noted here. Though I have to say this song’s not as strong lyrically as the first two, due to her use of repetition. The chorus has the kind of defiant punchiness that I’d expect from a band like Chvrches, but it falls into the same trap as a few of the songs I didn’t care for as much from Chvrches’ second album, where repetition in the choruses was emphasized over having something unique to say. (Now that I think about it, “Bury It” was the most notable example of this issue, and Hayley appeared on the remix for that song, which is an amusing coincidence.) This is a fun song to groove to, but unlike most of the up-tempo tracks on this album, I kind of get tired of singing along to it.
The first of the mellower tracks on this album is a strong enough entry to give the aforementioned catchy singles a serious run for their money. It’s got the smoothness and syncopation of a really good Haim song – imagine a lush ballad like “Honey & I”, but with the beat of “The Wire”, and that’s sort of what Paramore’s got going on here. I love how the guitar and drums seem to be tiptoeing around the actual beat of the song during the verse, only to lock it down during the chorus. The entire thing’s in 6/8, but how the emphasis shifts from “1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2” during the verse to “1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3” during the chorus adds a lot to the emotional dynamic of the song. Hayley’s lyrics go quite a bit beyond the usual breakup song fare here, noting that a relationship is firmly in the read-view window, but she’s struggling over whether to forgive the person who hurt her. There’s a lot of backstory that I didn’t know about when I first listened to this song. First of all, Hayley’s ex is none other than Chad Gilbert, lead singer of New Found Glory, who I happen to recognize as the ex-husband Sherri Dupree was struggling to move beyond on Eisley‘s 2011 album The Valley. Dude breaks his fair share of hearts, apparently. Second of all, Hayley is a Christian even though Paramore doesn’t bill itself as a “Christian band”. That second point is especially important here, because we Christians are sometimes guilty of throwing around cliches about how we should forgive poeple because it’s the right thing to do, but often we say we’ve done that when we haven’t arrived at that point emotionally yet. Hayley’s approaching the subject with enough wisdom and maturity to know that it takes time – forgiveness isn’t going to magically happen just because the other person apologizes and would kind of like to sweep the whole thing under the rug so that they can hang out again. “Don’t you go and get it twisted/Forgiving is not forgetting”, she reminds him during the bridge, which might just be my favorite lyrics on the album. There’s a big difference between gradually ceasing to vilify and hate somebody, and actually putting yourself back in the same vulnerable place where they can potentially hurt you in the exact same way they did before. The former is good for a person’s emotional and spiritual health, but the latter is how victims often get victimized again and then get treated like the whole situation is their fault. So even in a vulnerable, smooth, melodically pleasing song like this, I appreciate how Hayley is standing her ground and drawing a clear line between what she owes herself and what she does not owe him.
5. Fake Happy
While I can’t say I know a ton about the band’s previous sound, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that if you were to strip away the bland, acoustic intro that serves as a decoy, and the bubbly keyboard notes that provide the initial hook of the song, this one actual has the most conventional “rock” chorus of anything on the album. That’s probably because the chorus kicks in with strong electric power chords and a pretty basic chord progression – it’s not “heavy” but it’s got some real power to it, and it’s an interesting contrast to the more keyboard and bass-driven verse. While the intro isn’t really my favorite part of the song, due to how downtrodden and checked-out Hayley sounds and how uninspired the acoustic strumming is, I do get while this is thematically important, because sometimes a depressed person just needs a safe space to feel the way they feel and not have to put a face on for the rest of the world. That sets up the rest of the song to represent the usual cycle of a popular musician’s life – playing concerts, giving interviews, constantly feeling the pressure to tell the audience what they want to hear instead of being honest and saying life is really hard for you now and you’re not interested in sugar-coating it. While Hayley comes down pretty hard on the Stepford smilers out there in the world of music and media, she admits that she’s been guilty of this too, because it’s basically what’s expected of her – stand there, look cute, sing your songs and give us some funny anecdotes to broadcast, but don’t challenge us or say stuff that bums us out. Because of what it’s about, the otherwise cutesy and innocuous aspects of this song, such as the fluffy keyboards, the way she enunciates the word “teeth” as two syllables in the line “If I smile through my teeth-ah!/Would you believe me?”, and the cheery “Ba-da-ba-da-ba-ba” sing-along in the bridge, seem like important ingredients, as if this song were the result of gloomy lo-fi folk, angry rock, and insipid pop music all having a fight with each other.
Setting the keyboards and the glossy production aside for a few minutes, this is an acoustic song that thankfully doesn’t fall victim to the same dull presentation as the first few moments of “Fake Happy”. I often have mixed feelings about this sort of a song showing up on an album that is largely oriented around a full band’s performance, since it tends to thrust the lead singer and maybe one other player (I’m guessing Taylor) into the spotlight while giving everyone else very little to do. But the guitar playing, while mellow, has a slight spring to its step due to how the chords are arpeggiated instead of blandly strummed, which automatically gives this song an edge over how most rock bands do this sort of thing. And there’s a string section that comes in, which might make the song a tad Disney-esque near the end, but I don’t mind it too much because that seems to be how this song balances out Hayley’s glum lyrics in lieu of the catchy beats most other songs on this album employ. She wrote this one as a letter to herself at age 26 (which was only a couple years ago – hard to believe given how grown-up her writing is on most of this album, but going through a depression’ll do that to you), sort of opening up a dialogue between her more optimistic and pessimistic sides, saying that dreaming alone won’t get you everything you ever wanted, but that it’s still worth having dreams even if they cost you a lot of pain by going unrealized, and that hope is always worth holding on to. Even though it seems to be coming from a place where she was emotionally drained, I feel like the lessons learned here are positive ones. The placement of this song smack in the middle of the album doesn’t feel quite right to me, which is why I’m giving it a bit of a lukewarm grade, but it is a commendable performance that shows some versatility and reminds us that Paramore’s shift in musical style runs deeper than just trying on some cutesy costumes.
As we get going again with the glossier, more keyboard-oriented stuff, this song comes along that actually stands out to me more for the wind-chime like synth sounds that run through it than for its lyrics or melody. Not that either of those things are bad – I think a song about being willing to dive back into a difficult relationship and hope the risk is worth the reward is a nice counterpoint to the sadness and heartbreak expressed in a few of the previous songs. Like “Hard Times”, this one also has a call-and-response sort of chorus, though this one seems less geared toward group participation and more toward cramming in more lyrics that Hayley could manage in a single breath. It sounds like there’s a male vocalist – perhaps drummer Zac Farro – backing her up here. It’s a nice effect, even if the chorus isn’t quite as memorable and “sing-along-able” as most of the others.
OK, I know for sure that Zac sings on this one. Only in the bridge – which was written with for that specific purpose – but for those who have followed the band long enough to know that he had left in 2010 only to come back for this album, it’s a significant moment. This song’s about the mending of a relationship, and without knowing that history I would assume it was the same relationship sung about in “Forgiveness”, because one of the things that keeps people from forgiving is the tendency to hold a grudge. Regardless of whether you read it as being about a professional or romantic relationship, or just a rift between two friends, it’s actually one of the happier songs on the album despite its title, because it’s about the two picking up where they left off, having conversations about all that happened during the time they were apart, and realizing the conflict was far enough in the past that they now feel silly about missing out on all that time together. This is one of the rare moments on the album where a happy, bouncy performance from the band actually gels with an upbeat lyric, and it feels like a natural progression, coming after the moments of learning to heal and hope and trust again from the previous songs. While I didn’t notice it right away, Zac may well be the MVP of this song, since the high energy of it gives him plenty of excuses to go nuts with drum fills. His style here almost reminds me of MuteMath‘s (sadly, ex-) drummer Darren King for a few brief moments.
9. Caught in the Middle
I’ve heard some reviewers describe the sound of this song as reminding them of ska. I can sort of see that – it’s mostly in the drum beat, and Zac’s heavy use of cymbals, and maybe a little bit in the punchy guitars too. But it’s not like there’s a horn section or anything all that close to sped-up reggae. It’s ska in the same way that No Doubt at peak popularity was “ska”. And that’s not at all a bad thing – I don’t mind a little 90s nostalgia mixed in with my 80s nostalgia. Musically, this one doesn’t quite achieve the energetic home run that most of this album’s upbeat tunes do – once you’ve made it to the bridge, it kind of plateaus and doesn’t quite know how to finish strong other than to just go back to the same old chorus and intro riff. But I like how it’s once again contrasting peppy music with a dark lyrical theme. I guess Taylor was the primary writer here, and judging from the lyrics, he was pretty bummed out about feeling old when he wrote this one. It’s weird to me, as someone who just hit 40, to hear people in their late 20s or early 30s writing about this, but I guess when you’ve been in a band for literally half your life and you’re expected to maintain that same level of energy and relevance to a young audience that you had when you started out, it can be a bit frustrating. So it’s appropriate that the feeling of being in a sort of no-man’s-land between young and old is matched up with this deliberately out-of-place call-back to a sound that’s been long dead in popular music. They probably could have been bolder with this one, but I still appreciate their inherent act of defiance in putting it on the record.
10. Idle Worship
Show of hands: How many folks out there have heard at least ten songs in which musicians remind us they’re not saviors or superheroes, and promise that they, too, make mistakes just like us? It’s a well-worn topic in pop and rock music, so I have to admit that aside from the punny title, I wasn’t expecting a whole lot new from this one. But you know what, this seems to be a remedial lesson that we keep having to relearn, considering how many pop stars out there seem to be known and celebrated for their huge egos. Hayley’s take on the subject works for me because it doesn’t come across as “Let me be so magnanimous as to bring myself back down to the level of you lowly commoners” – instead, she seems to be a bit taken aback and frustrated that fans have constructed this larger-than-life image of her over the years which she could never live up to. She looks forward to the possibility of letting them down because it will provide relief from being expected to maintain that ridiculous illusion. The way she’s hinted at being expected to constantly smile and exist on some higher plane above normal human problems on earlier songs like “Rose-Colored Boy” and “Fake Happy” really helps this one to land. It also helps that the band’s got a really frenetic beat going here, with some pretty wicked syncopation that gives the drums and bass a solid workout. Vocally, it may not be Hayley’s strongest performance, as her near-yelping at points comes across a tad whiny. But I completely understand why she’s frustrated, as I would certainly find that an immensely annoying situation to be in. Paramore is the rare band that can pull this off without falling into the trap of “Successful career musicians whining about the privilege of being famous”.
11. No Friend
The album’s bravest experiment is also its biggest letdown, and it’s all due to one particularly maddening production choice. This is a spoken word piece by Aaron Weiss, lead vocalist of mewithoutYou, who is actually doing Hayley a solid here after she did guest vocals for a few tracks on their excellent 2012 album Ten Stories. He’s an unusual vocalist whose approach ranges from “offbeat poetry” to “coming gradually unhinged with seething rage”, and stylistically he’s just about the sharpest contrast to Hayley that I can imagine, which makes his inclusion here a bold move. The rhythm of this song picks up directly from the sudden ending of “Idle Worship”, serving as a sort of outro to that track, as Aaron offers his own stream-of-consciousness commentary on the whole “savior complex” issue. It’s some really good stuff… if you want to go look up the lyrics online. On the actual recording, you can barely hear the guy until his voice reaches a fever pitch midway through the song. That makes the track sound mostly like a repetitive instrumental, with the drums and bass as catchy as they were in the previous track, but none of it seeming to go anywhere. Since this track is slightly longer than the one it serves as an outro for, listening to that same beat for nearly seven minutes can get rather tedious. And all they had to do to fix that was make it clear that there were some lyrics deserving of the audience’s attention. I realize Aaron’s voice is a bit of an acquired taste – Lord knows I had a rough time with my first mwY album all those years ago. So I can imagine some nervous producer surreptitiously turning his levels down on the mixing board. Still, it prevents “No Friend” from serving as the powerful payoff to the strong setup of the track that preceded it.
12. Tell Me How
The album concludes with an emotional piano ballad – one which does at least give the band’s guitarist and rhythm section a light amount of work to do so that the track flows nicely, but for the most part, it puts Hayley and her keyboard front and center, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. The main issue I have with it is that even though it’s about the loss of a relationship and trying to figure out how to genuinely let someone go, musically it doesn’t seem to provide much closure to the album. It’s like the band thought to themselves, “Well, we did all this up-tempo stuff and we need to close with something mellow, so this one might as well get tacked on at the end.” I don’t mean to diminish Hayley’s lyrics or her affecting vocal performance here – she’s solid in both departments, which gives us one of the most striking verses on the album as she laments getting the silent treatment: “You keep me up with your silence/Take me down with your quiet/Of all the weapons you fight with/Your silence is the most violent.” To me, this would have been a stronger track if it showed up mid-album. I’m actually tempted to switch the positions of this song and “26” just to see if it flows a little better. Of course, none of this matters to those hearing the track in isolation – and I could honestly see it working as a late-in-the-album-cycle radio single once all of the bangers from this record have run their course. But for it to serve as the closing track, I feel like it needs a little more of an emotional climax, or some sort of stronger resolve, rather than the way it just sort of gently strips back down to its basic rhythm and then just stops.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Hard Times $2
Rose-Colored Boy $2
Told You So $1.25
Fake Happy $1.25
Caught in the Middle $1.25
Idle Worship $1.50
No Friend $.50
Tell Me How $.75
Hayley Williams: Lead vocals, keyboards, percussion
Taylor York: Guitar, keyboards, percussion, marimba, production, engineering, mixing, programming
Zac Farro: Drums, keyboards, percussion, bells, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: