Album Review: Hayley Williams – Petals For Armor
‘Rage is a quiet thing,’ sings Hayley Williams after a big exhale. As the track Simmer gently stretches into life, she continues: ‘You think that you’ve tamed it, but it’s just lying in wait.’ These are the introductory lines to the singer’s first solo record, Petals For Armor, and can be taken as an early indication for where things are headed. It’s a collection of songs that finds the vocalist bristling like never before.
Not that Hayley is a stranger to some emotional ire. In the early successes of Paramore, the band that the 31-year-old has fronted since she was a Nashville teenager, she became a figurehead of the 2000s emo scene that specialised in pent-up angst. On 2017’s After Laughter, the band’s most recent release, a matured pop sound flush with ’80s hues was undercut by the singer’s frank takes on fame and anxiety. And yet the mood of this 15-track debut feels much different. It’s wilder and unvarnished, adding up to a self-portrait that’s intensely candid and intimate.
Put simply, this personal catharsis is why these songs were made. Petals For Armor wasn’t planned. Instead, Hayley had returned home at the end of 2018 from a year of touring After Laughter and had fully intended to take some time off. That was until the singer’s therapist encouraged her to start writing again as a way of working through some early traumas. The first to come from these sessions was Leave It Alone, where the singer expresses her fear of losing loved ones against gentle, Radiohead-style guitars. It shares in the dark sparseness of Simmer, which throbs with heat as she recalls the abuse that women in her family have endured.
Both of those songs are marked by a minimal, experimental looseness, as is much of the record. But not all of the music is so patient. The hushed tones are sometimes swapped for great big bursts of kinetic energy. Cinnamon, for example, is packed with yawning howls as Hayley builds a playful ode to the Nashville cottage that she recently moved into by herself. ‘I’m not lonely, baby, I am free,’ she calls out. Meanwhile, the wonderfully offbeat Dead Horse uses African-styled harmonies inspired by the Lijadu Sisters, the ’70s disco duo. ‘Held my breath for a decade,’ Hayley sings, in a song that not only skewers her divorce from New Found Glory’s Chad Gilbert but also reveals her shame at the affair that started the relationship in the first place.
As the record unfolds, it begins to let more brightness in. The best of these latter tracks is the string-filled, daydreamy Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris. It features Boygenius (the supergroup consisting of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus) and uses a garden metaphor in its tender portrait of femininity. Taken and Sugar On The Rim later hint at new romance, but both get slightly overpowered by the thick retro gloss. That’s before the funk-driven Watch Me While I Bloom and cleansing Crystal Clear get things back on track. ‘How lucky I feel to be in my body again,’ Hayley belts with notable muscle on the former, a reminder of how restrained she’s been for most of the record.
The original plan for Petals For Armor was for it to be released in three parts over several months – a trio of EPs each with five tracks. Part one arrived in February as expected. But before part two was due, most of the world was under quarantine. In response, Hayley slowed down the roll-out even further: the next five songs came out one week at a time. It afforded her the space to retread the ideas and conversations behind each song with her fans through social media with even greater care. Something that she clearly believed was important. It’s a sign of how close to the bone the singer feels she went this time around. In doing so, she’s presented a journey that’s as raw as it is captivating.
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