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I Guess This Is Growing Up: Paramore's Quarter-Life Crisis

Paramore finally embrace the chaos that's defined their career.

How many bands have a career arc this strange? 2009: Paramore release brand new eyes, a record fuelled by internal tension – and not coincidentally, their strongest to date. 2010: it bubbles over – Josh and Zac Farro, Paramore's founding guitarist and drummer, leave amidst a war of words so brutal it threatens to derail the band entirely. 2013: the band finally releases Paramore, a triumphant album about moving on and growing up, with a few unsubtle diss tracks. 2015: founding bassist Jeremy Davis leaves, making the same accusations the Farros did five years ago. Years of emotional progress, undone in an instant.


2017: to everyone's shock, Zac Farro rejoins Paramore, resolving a blood feud that might never have ended. So Paramore's fifth record, After Laughter, might sound like their lightest yet – but it comes with the accumulated baggage of twelve years in the public eye.

On the surface, Paramore seem like an entirely new band. They've jumped on the 80s bandwagon – call it nu-new wave? At this point, the 80s revival has lasted longer than the actual 1980s. You can hear shades of Talking Heads, Blondie, Graceland – the reference points are familiar. But it's not exactly trend-hopping – Paramore have always been defiantly trendproof.

They've retained the bounce of 2013's poppiest singles, "Ain't It Fun" and "Still into You", while ditching the power chords, palm-muting, and anything else that once identified them as pop-punk. But Hayley Williams' nervy yelp and warmth are unmistakable; guitarist Taylor York underplays, like Nile Rodgers via Jerry Harrison. The returned Zac Farro's drumming is precise, yet anything but metronomic, unlike any other drummer or drum machine on pop radio.

The first time you hear "Hard Times", the lead single, it's all a little too obvious – the newfound sense of humour, the peppy chorus, the goofy Daft Punk vocoder. But pay attention: "All that I want is to wake up fine / To tell me that I'm alright, that I ain't gonna die." Wait, what? When was the last time you heard lyrics this dour over a pop song this colourful? With her usual energy, Williams sings phrases straight out of @sosadtoday, while the band fights back. "Hard Times" is not an inspirational anthem, not even easily classified as optimistic. "And I gotta get to rock bottom!", Williams yells, punctuating the end of each chorus. Eleven songs to go – how can they get any lower?


It's not just that After Laughter's lyrics, melodies and arrangements are at odds – songs openly contradict each other. On track four, "Forgiveness": "And you, you want forgiveness / But I, I can't give you that". Track eight, "Grudges", inspired by the same events: "We'll laugh 'till we cry / Like we did when we were kids / 'Cause we can't keep holding on to grudges". "Pool" is a fatalistic take on Williams' marriage that's not nearly as appealing as "Still into You", her 2013 ode to romantic love. But the way Williams paints it, it's never a journey from A to B, anger to enlightenment. They're equally valid – two sides of the same coin, forming a messy whole together.

Paramore were often lumped in with mid-2000s pop-punk and its signifiers – MySpace, the Warped Tour – but they had little in common with blink-182's brattiness, nor Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco's Morrissey worship. Paramore were home-schooled Tennessee kids, devout Christians who bonded over post-hardcore bands – Refused, At the Drive-In, mewithoutYou. They blew up teenage feelings into dual guitar, life-or-death existential drama. Their songs were usually us versus them – "Misery Business", "Born for This", "Pressure" – and Hayley Williams played the sympathetic protagonist to a tee. When the Farros left, the remaining members' musical influences broadened along with their worldview. On 2013's Paramore, they wrote poppier songs with more secular, less black-and-white themes – achieving their biggest commercial success to date. Still, there was a sense of tribalism: it was us – Paramore and their fans – who survived their – the Farros' – exodus. Paramore felt more sure of themselves than ever – and then Jeremy Davis left, reopening old wounds, rewriting their triumphant comeback narrative as if they'd been the villains the whole time. But artists need a little self-doubt. It means never being complacent, in life or art. Hayley Williams and Taylor York nearly disbanded Paramore entirely, until Zac Farro's return renewed their collective sense of purpose. But in order to continue, they had to kill their idols – themselves. So for Paramore, going new wave isn't some nostalgic genre exercise. New wave was about instability: cultural, rhythmic and creative. It told stories of transition – from 70s to 80s, punk to disco, guitars to synthesisers, drums to drum machines, ripped jeans to New Romantic colour. No two iconic new wave bands sound alike. By throwing out their old musical formulas, Paramore have finally embraced the chaos that's defined their career. No two Paramore records have the same lineup. Each one felt, at the time, transitional. You always wondered about their destination – would they ever stick with a sound long enough to perfect it? But over the last twelve years, their discography's revealed a clear emotional arc: angst, joy, angst, joy – and on the fifth, both at once.

Punk rock is built on catharsis, but playing music isn't enough to solve all your problems. So what comes after? New wave succeeded punk rock, but Paramore aren't exactly new wave – nor pop-punk, emo, post-hardcore or top 40 pop. After Laughter starts as a joyful racket, but it fades out with a whimper – a plea for empathy to Jeremy Davis. It's twelve songs, each its own tangled state of mind. Whether we're rockstars or not, we're all the walking wounded. "You hit me with lightning! Maybe I'll come alive", yells Hayley Williams in "Hard Times". Is she channelling David Byrne, or Frankenstein's monster?

Richard S. He is a pop producer and award-winning critic. You can tweet your grievances to @Richaod.

Image: Instagram