by Mia Hughes
‘Simmer’ – the opening track of Petals for Armor – begins with a buzzing synth, like a light flickering on and off. The track builds with rhythmic vocal noises, the introduction of kick drum, and then – a long exhale.
There are a lot of reasons that it’s relevant that this, Hayley Williams’ first solo record, begins this way – because in a lot of ways, the record itself feels like an exhale. It comes as the result of years of therapy, a 15 track expression of all the things that Williams has bottled up for the years prior to this record. Petals for Armor is an unpacking of a lifetime of rage, sadness, shame and guilt that was left to fester and, finally released to see the light of day, it sees Williams opening up to lighter emotions too; love, joy, hope.
Feeling able to step out on her own at all was also a long time coming. It’s a well-known story by now that as a young teenager Williams was signed to Atlantic as a solo artist, but resisted – insisting that she remain with her band Paramore. But it was a position that she had to continue reiterating as the band grew, as she was faced with endless sexist assumptions and accusations; that Paramore must be simply her backing band, that she must be controlling and scheming. As these insidious narratives took hold, Williams did anything she could to deflect them. That included writing ‘Paramore is a band’ on t-shirts she would wear to perform and, more crucially, stating outright and repeatedly that she would not pursue a solo career.
Petals for Armor is no betrayal of that philosophy. Williams has expressed her commitment to Paramore, and assured that the band will return in due time, in several interviews during this press cycle. She also collaborated heavily with her bandmates on the project; Taylor York, Paramore guitarist and songwriter, produced the entire album and co-wrote many of its songs, while drummer Zac Farro contributed drums on select tracks and directed the video for ‘Dead Horse’. But it does seem like a newfound acknowledgement that celebrating her bandmates’ contributions doesn’t need to be paired with shrinking her own.
For this album to exist feels like a triumph in itself over sexist criticism and her previous aversion to standing out in a male-dominated scene. But it is even more so because of how it deals with Williams’ relationship with femininity. ‘Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris’ (featuring Boygenius on backing vocals) does this most overtly: a feminist encouragement to not compare oneself to or compete with fellow women (“I will not compare other beauty to mine / And I will not become a thorn in my own side”). The flower motif that titles the album, too, is a nod to the traditional hallmarks of femininity that Williams now embraces.
Yet ‘Simmer’, from which that title comes, deals with anything but the softness and beauty that we’re traditionally told femininity comprises. It explores the rage that comes from abuse and hurt – and crucially that rage is painted not as a flaw, but as something that must live in balance with kindness (“How to draw the line between wrath and mercy”), and even as an expression of love (“If my child needed protection from a fucker like that man / I’d sooner gut him / ‘Cause nothing cuts like a mother”). In ‘Simmer’, rage is just as much an integral part of femininity as the beauty present in ‘Roses…’; this intricate exploration of what womanhood entails is fascinating to hear, a marked progression as a writer from the teenager who once wrote ‘Misery Business’.
Still, what hasn’t changed since then is Williams’ distinctive lyrical style. Her discography, beginning with the earliest Paramore record, is an autobiography; her lyrics have always been open, personal, the themes of her songs expressed plainly rather than masked with any kind of abstraction. It’s a style that allows for her to share her experiences in a uniquely moving way, and for her art to become inextricable from those experiences. The record recounts the past three years of her life since her last release with Paramore: a divorce from a toxic relationship, a reclamation of femininity and vulnerability, and a resolve to break unhealthy patterns. It’s presented as a chronological journey taking place over three chapters; from the pain and darkness in ‘Simmer’ and ‘Leave It Alone’, to allowing healing to reach through the cracks in songs like ‘Roses…’ and ‘Over Yet’, to beginning a healthier chapter of life with the final section, as in ‘Sugar on the Rim’ and ‘Crystal Clear’.
It’s easy to imagine that such an open style of lyricism could prove daunting when writing about the deeply personal, often painful journey of healing that Williams does here – particularly when she has been afforded precious little privacy since her teens. Certainly there are songs on the record which deal with immensely difficult ideas. ‘Leave It Alone’ takes an unflinching look at grief, Williams singing: “Now that I finally wanna live, the ones I love are dying”, backed by haunting, mournful strings. And ‘Dead Horse’ deals with shame that Williams says she bottled up for a decade, dating back to the start of her previous relationship: “I got what I deserved / I was the other woman first”. It’s perhaps a sign of Williams’ more comfortable relationship with herself and her role as an artist that she was finally able to dissect such a topic via song so plainly; she even seems, on ‘Taken’, to poke some fun at the public interest in her personal life, singing: “If anybody asks, yeah, I’m taken”.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Williams making her first real outing as a solo artist is in the musical freedom it offers her. As much as Paramore have experimented with their sound, there’s an expectation of congruity from such an established band, and it’s likely that patterns form when there’s an established method of writing. To hear Hayley Williams with full creative freedom and control is really a novelty. What becomes clear listening to Petals for Armor is that she has taken this brand new opportunity to explore pop music through every prism that she can.
Sometimes that takes the form – not unlike the more recent Paramore output – of perfectly crafted commercially accessible pop. ‘Dead Horse’, which would have fit in on Paramore’s After Laughter, draws from the Afrobeat and new wave influences that much of that record did. And there’s ‘Over Yet’, which draws on bouncy 80s pop, pulling from Cyndi Lauper or Madonna on its gloriously catchy chorus. In several places there’s also more than a hint of Williams’ R&B influences; ‘Pure Love’ takes the more upbeat route, with a funky bassline, shimmering synths and an ecstatic chorus, while ‘Why We Ever’ is a soulful ballad, Williams singing over melancholic synth chords until drums and bass take the song into a layered but subdued chorus.
Though it’s always exciting to hear a perfect pop song from Williams, more exciting still are the songs that come totally out of left field for her. ‘Simmer’ is indebted to trip-hop, dark and glitchy and as tightly wound as its title would suggest. ‘Cinnamon’ is jerky and off-kilter, toying with funk-pop in places but distorting it through some alien lens. ‘Leave It Alone’ is perhaps the record’s least pop-focused song, its horror-movie strings conveying a deep, harrowing pain. And ‘Sugar on the Rim’ takes what is probably the most unpredictable turn on the record: it’s a drum machine-based, vogue-ready club track that’s a million miles away from anything we’ve heard Williams create before, and all the more brilliant for it.
Considering that its 15 songs go to so many different places, the record does veer close to feeling overwhelming or undercooked. There are certainly songs that, musically, wouldn’t be too sorely missed if they were cut – the middle section in particular sags slightly, with ‘My Friend’ and ‘Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris’ feeling a little below-par in their compositions. But what keeps every moment of the record feeling necessary is the journey Williams undertakes lyrically, each song an important page of the story. It’s a record that came as a therapeutic exercise before it was ever going to be released for critical evaluation, and it’s obvious that each of these songs exists because it needs to. Williams has been telling her story for 15 years, but Petals for Armor feels like the most vital chapter of all.