Album Review: Hayley Williams’ ‘Petals for Armor’ Is a Hopeful (And Solo) Manifesto

Where do you go after fronting one of the most impactful and successful rock bands of the past twenty years? Paramore’s frontwoman, Hayley Williams, has written some of the most incredible songs of the past decade and she has lent her gargantuan voice to such anthems as “Misery Business,” “Still Into You,” and the Grammy-winning “Ain’t It Fun.” We’ve gotten glimpses of what solo Hayley would sound like, but the lofty pop hooks of B.o.B.’s “Airplanes” and EDM thumps of Zedd’s “Stay the Night” could not be further from the distinct sound that she has cultivated on her debut album. Petals for Armor is a reflective and hopeful record that chronicles Hayley’s journey from the depths of depression to new a life filled with love and devoid of fear.

Hayley first introduced the album through a pair of EPs titled Petals for Armor I and Petals for Armor II, respectively. The two EPs make up the first two thirds of the album and each of those songs sound just as good in the context of the full album narrative as they did on the standalone EPs. Paramore’s brash rock stylings often dipped into punk-pop, and on their most recent album, 2017’s After Laughter, the group delved into synthpop, new wave, and even art rock. While many of the band’s songs were anchored by Hayley’s piercing belts and soaring vocal performances, on her debut she opts for a more restrained vocal that highlights the intricacies of her songwriting. Beginning with “Simmer,” the album’s lead single, an aggressive drum pattern and stuttering production backs Hayley’s story of her battle with anxiety and anger. Her vocal performance is subdued, but never fully relaxed; you can hear the tension in her voice as she recounts being embroiled in heightened emotion. Where you would expect a showstopping belt from Hayley, she makes the conscious choice to hold back and subvert that expectation into something a lot more personal and vulnerable. Similarly, on “Leave It Alone,” Hayley tackles grief and loss over delicate guitar strums. It’s a somber affair that’s anchored by this heartbreaking line: “‘Cause now that I want to live/Well, everybody around me is dying.”

Petals for Armor‘s soundscape isn’t just soft indie rock and alternative sounds. There are bursts of 80s-influenced pop (like those on The Weeknd‘s After Hours and Dua Lipa‘s Future Nostalgia), funk, dance-pop, and synthpop. Remarkably, these seemingly disparate genres make up one of the most cohesive albums of 2020. This is the beauty of working closely with a select few producers. Taylor York and Joey Howard handle the majority of the album’s production which gives the record a seamless blend of sounds that never feels disjointed despite the experimentation. On “Cinnamon,” Hayley and her collaborators lean into slight funk influences to soundtrack her ode to freedom in solitude. “Over Yet,” her best bet at at a mainstream hit off this album, dives headfirst into 80s pop with a synth-laden dedication to moving on and elevating from depression. There’s also “Sugar On the Rim,” a track that uses a self-explanatory cocktail metaphor and deep house influences to celebrate the good in the bad. Hayley even channels her inner Madonna in terms of her vocal delivery in a sly callback to her days as one of pop’s resident hook girls. The album’s narrative shifts from darkness to hope as the the track list progresses, an evolution that’s doubly apparent in the lyrics and production choices.

Atlantic

Like Dixie Chicks‘ “Gaslighter,” many of the album’s tracks, namely “Sudden Desire” and “Dead Horse,” tackle the heavy topics of Hayley’s divorce. Hayley and her ex-husband, Chad Gilbert of New Found Glory, got together through an affair and that uncomfortable truth and awkward tension is addressed in the music. “Sudden Desire” is the album’s biggest taste of her trademark powerhouse vocals as she wrestles with angsty denial, but ultimately gives into her desire to connect with someone emotionally and physically. The bombastic chorus feels like it was plucked right out of a Paramore album track; also, “Take the elephant by the hand and hold it/It’s cruel to tame a thing that don’t know its strength” is a genius line. On the other hand, “Dead Horse” is, in a way, a companion track to “Sudden Desire.” The song sees Hayley coming to terms with her own faults, but the bouncy pop sound of the track prevents it from being too heavy. For all of its highs, Petals for Armor does have its fair share of songs that lean into filler territory. “My Friend,” “Why We Ever,” and “Taken,” aren’t necessarily bad songs, but they are ultimately forgettable when placed alongside so many stronger tracks. Luckily, the album’s final pair of tracks, “Watch Me While I Bloom” and “Crystal Clear,” are the optimistic and forward-looking antitheses of “Simmer” and “Leave It Alone.”

Petals for Armor accomplishes everything a debut album should. The revelatory album effectively establishes Hayley’s artistic profile outside of Paramore and shows off her songwriting and vocal prowess through a story only she could tell. The album is smart in the way it plays with volume and dabbles in different subgenres of pop and rock. Hayley is her own superhero on this album, and her vulnerability and strength are beautiful to listen to.

Key Tracks: “Simmer” | “Creepin” | “Sudden Desire” | Dead Horse” | “Over Yet”

Score: 85

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