Pity Party

The Slow-Burning Therapeutic Power of Paramore’s ‘After Laughter’

How I've been helped by the duality of this record, and come to relate to the woman responsible for it.

by Lauren O'Neill
04 October 2017, 10:37am

Image via Wikimedia Commons

This is a column called Pity Party and it is brought to you by Lauren O'Neill from Noisey UK. It's about music (obviously) and feelings and #feelings. Please cry along, thanks.

As of right now, I have been having talking therapy for almost exactly six months. With a bunch of neuroses and an eating disorder that still threatens to rear its head to contend with, I'm very fortunate to be in a position to be able to pay for help, and it's been a useful step in terms of actually dealing with the considerable amount of shit I've been mentally carting around for a while now.

Though it seems like a significant stretch, six months is relatively little time in therapy terms. It's an unnatural process, and it's difficult to get used to. Going into a room with a stranger and revealing your innermost workings is essentially like entering that room and very slowly taking off all your clothes without breaking eye contact. It's embarrassing, and weird, and you inevitably try to hide the parts you don't like much. Sometimes – not that this is a good thing; like I said, I'm still learning – I'll try to take the edge off the bad stuff by withholding some of the messier details before inevitably blurting them out anyway, or with chirpy delivery, or a dumb, self-deprecating punchline.

I mention this because there's a 2017 album that does the same thing. Paramore's After Laughter, released this past May, is a masterclass in cushioning the blow of difficult statements. It's dotted throughout with crushing lyrics about topics like death, depression, and self-doubt, but they're set against a soundtrack of pure, soaring pop. And listening to it, imagining myself sat in the chair, making a joke in the general direction of my therapist to protect myself from the teeth of an especially painful truth or memory, I relate.

Paramore in 2017 are a band scarred by years of line-up changes, legal battles, and mental illness, all of which have been most heavily shouldered by its prodigious vocalist and only consistent member Hayley Williams. But to listen to their current output on a purely sonic level, you would have absolutely no idea about this suffering. After Laughter is Paramore's full embrace of pop: if they had flirted with it on 2013's Paramore, then this time around – perhaps influenced by the critical success of artists like Carly Rae Jepsen (to whom their new sound has been compared) – they are positively making out with it, with tongues. Gone are the huge riffs for which the band were known; in their place breezy synths and fewer powerhouse vocal moments, though the strong, catchy song structures have remained, and earworm choruses abound.

Behind its shiny 80s aesthetic, though, After Laughter is home to the band's darkest ever material, though in a similar way to the other pop music that follows this trend right now, its sadness is specifically lyrical, tempered by music that expresses something else entirely. The record's mission statement is best encapsulated by its standout song, "Fake Happy." On it, Williams describes her attempt to convince those around her that she's fine, as she hides her depression in plain sight. "If I smile with my teeth, bet you believe me / If I smile with my teeth, I think I believe me," she muses, ducking amongst its big, sweeping guitars as if they might provide a distraction from how scary what she's saying is.

The unease between music and lyrics recurs throughout the album like a bad dream. On "Pool," Hayley Williams' melody is bright and perky. It's punctuated by sunny guitars and glossy production. And over it all, there's a vocal hook about drowning: "I'm under water, no air in my lungs / My eyes are open, and I'm giving up / You are the wave I could never tame / If I survive, I'll dive back in." On the lead single, "Hard Times," with its surprising, synthy direction and zany, Talking Heads-y spoken lines, survival – that is, the prospect of not dying – is again figured only as an 'if,' a 'maybe' (the very chorus contains the line "And I still don't know if I'll even survive"). It's difficult stuff, but because it's sung by Williams' whirlwind of a voice against huge, enveloping instrumentals, you don't always take it in, especially if you're not listening out for it.

This discomfort is on every song on After Laughter; it's its lifeblood. But as helpful as that's been in understanding my own motives as I've muddled through the first months of therapy, its importance didn't really crystallise until I saw the band perform at Chicago's Riot Fest this September. During the set, Hayley Williams addressed After Laughter's subject matter head on. It's about "darkness, or sadness, or depression, or whatever you wanna call it," she said. She assured fans that they aren't alone. And then she stopped for a second after acknowledging all of it, before saying, in a resigned way, "Let's just celebrate that we made a positive choice tonight." Then they played another song, and I wept.

It's not rare that I cry when watching live music (I cry at adverts), but something about seeing Hayley Williams defiantly owning her problems – not sagely saying "I've been there," but instead indicating that she's still right in the thick of it – and then carrying on to play music anyway got me right in the chest.

Williams is an important role model for a lot of young women in 'alternative' music, because she's one of its most talented, longstanding, and visible performers, and she emerged at a time when there weren't many any other women for girls with black fingernails and home dye-jobs to look up to. Despite this, however, she too frequently isn't given her dues. The After Laughter album campaign – during which she announced that she has split from her husband, New Found Glory's Chad Gilbert – in particular has seen her sometimes treated unfairly by a male-dominated music press. Over the course of the promo cycle, it was once again the problematic lyrics on Riot!'s "Misery Business," about which she apologised years ago, which made headlines. For these words, she's been held to a much higher moral standard than men within a music community that is rife with allegations of abuse by male musicians against women.

Plus, interviews with her over the past couple of years have tended to focus on Paramore's legal battles, and her reaction to being asked about them. But earlier this year, she opened up about suffering from mental illness. "For the first time in my life, there wasn't a pinhole of light at the end of the tunnel. I thought, 'I just wish everything would stop,'" she told The FADER. "It wasn't in the sense of, 'I'm going to take my life.' It was just hopelessness. Like, 'What's the point?' I don't think I understood how dangerous hopelessness is. Everything hurts." This admission, combined with a music press that largely seems to have made its mind up about her, must have made the album push exhausting, but, despite it all, she played on, the patron saint of emo girls who actually know way more about Jawbreaker than their guy friends everywhere. I hope she knows that for everything she gives us, live and on record, we love her back. And for as much as she makes us feel understood, we understand her, too.

Writing was what got me out of the worst period of my life. It is the only thing I have always loved to do, and it provided an outlet for whatever I was feeling. It still does. And while I might be projecting, it kind of seems like exorcising herself through music is the same for Hayley Williams. Her words in Chicago about "positive choices" still ring in my ears, because they confront the grim reality that when you're struggling mentally, you don't always make decisions that are in your best interests. But, eventually, when you feel able, you have to try. You have to put pen to paper, or make an album that acknowledges the fact of pain, but feels hopeful too. You have to make positive choices. And I know that with therapy, and After Laughter, and all the other stuff that gets me through the days when my brain feels like it's conspiring against me, I can continue making the positive choices that once eluded me. It feels good.

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