Rarely does Williams contain her sonic wanderlust long enough to make something that sounds like pure bubblegum.
Depression isn’t sexy, it isn’t glamorous and it isn’t fun. No matter how you make art about it, it’s hard to separate it from the painful realities of living through it. In the words of The Blow’s Khaela Maricich, though, “Pleasure writes fewer good songs.” If you compare your favorite songs about happiness to your favorites about heartbreak, sorrow, and depression, which do you find yourself leaning on as the better music? Pop music has always been a breeding ground for dance-worthy angst, with artists using the medium as a way to soothe the pain in their life. As the frontperson of Paramore since the early aughts, Hayley Williams has grown wholly adept at sharing her feelings within the framework of pop-punk and, at the very end of the band’s run, polished synth-pop, each record a renewed attempt to tip the solace/sorrow ratio of angst and make something that could make woe more bearable, even if not more sexy. Her debut solo album, Petals for Armor, is an extension of that, an attempt at processing depression and the end of a decade-long marriage through her own creative process. And, most importantly, one with killer pop tunes.
Petals for Armor feels, at once, like it could be stadium-ready pop, but rarely does she contain her sonic wanderlust long enough to make something that sounds like pure bubblegum. “Cinnamon” sounds like it could slot perfectly into a car commercial, but periodically you can watch her wander down a quieter, Feistian path. One song later, “Creepin’” seems fit to stay within that zone, but then a heavily-processed version of herself intrudes to ask, “So why you creepin’ ’round here?” Even at her poppiest, though, it’s clear that the danceability is meant to be a way to ease the fact that she spends so much time on it furious – or, in her own words, it’s “Sugar on the Rim,” a shiny mask over lyrical grenades like “And if my child needed protection/ From a fucker like that man/ I’d sooner gut him/ ‘Cause nothing cuts like a mother” or “Every morning I wake up/ From a dream of you, holding me/ Underwater.”
The closest twins to the Williams of Petals for Armor are Annie Clarke and Angel Olsen, with Clarke’s sonic clarity and Olsen’s emotional clarity. It’s pop music, but it’s art pop, the kind that could only be made by someone who has been playing in a god-tier third-wave emo band since before she was old enough for a driver’s license. She borrows vocal turns from Janet Jackson and Björk, but it never feels like joyless pastiche work, just someone making music that sounds like what they love. On at least a few songs – namely “Leave it Alone” and the Boygenius-featuring “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris” – she brings a blatant love of A Moon Shaped Pool-era Radiohead to the table, to the point where if your listen closely, you can hear vocal inflections that seem like they were lifted straight out of “Decks Dark.” It’s not blatant enough to be overpowering, but it’s undeniable when you know to look for it.
Williams sings constantly about her love of femininity and uses botanical imagery with joyous abandon, giving space for the fascinating “Cinnamon” and album-best “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris” to actively subvert the common connection between flowers and fragility. She’s unabashed about her own moments of spirited hedonism, too, with her singing “I wanted him to kiss me how/ With open mouth and open mouth/ We keep our distance now/ I wanna feel his hand go down/ I try not to think about/ What happened last night outside his house” with enough conviction that you’re liable to get hot under the collar. Her moments of full vulnerability are among the best, and in fact she’s so eager to open her own heart and mind up to the listener, the very first stanza is crushingly personal: “Rage is a quiet thing/ Ooh, you think that you’ve tamed it/ But it’s just lying in wait.” And that’s all ignoring the album’s best moment, which isn’t even a song, but rather a voicemail snipped that precedes “Dead Horse”: “Alright, it took me three days to send you this, but… Uh, sorry, I was in a depression. But I’m trying to come out of it now.” It’s a remarkable glimpse into Williams’ psyche, and it’s inspiring that she included it.
On paper, the album’s sequencing can seem all over the place, but the flow of it feels designed to not overload your system. “Simmer” and “Cinnamon” would feel too overbearing if put next to each other, but each song’s respective power works more effortlessly with the gorgeous (and, okay, also Radioheadesque) “Leave it Alone” betwixt the pair, a moody track with a sultry-sounding Williams co-starring with bassist Joey Howard’s lush bass tones. Even on more maximalist songs like “My Friend,” her ability to know just how much to hold back with any given song keeps the listener ensnared, but never overwhelmed. How else could you get away with having the blatantly Janet-eque depressive’s anthem “Over Yet,” the complicated and churning “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris,” and the lo-fi hip-hop aesthetics of “Why We Ever” all following each other?
Petals is exactly the album Williams was always destined to make, fitting squarely within her own musical trajectory so effortlessly, you could have put money on her making something like this. Don’t call it predictable, though: below the surface of the basic sound of the album lies impressive songwriting and beautiful introspection that totally surpasses where we left her on Paramore’s After Laughter. It’s great that she was able to come out the other side of that depression she talks about in the “Dead Horse” voicemail stronger, more self-assured, and a more finely-honed artist. Let’s just hope she doesn’t need any more heartache to make her next great work.