Album: After Laughter
Audience: The same as Paramore’s has always been.
Bottom Line: It’s thematically faithful to old Paramore, even if it sounds different.
Stand Out Songs: “Hard Times,” “26,” “Told You So”
Paramore used to occupy an interesting position in the landscape of alt-rock right at the intersection of pop-punk and emo. I doubt that anyone could, in good conscience, make the argument that All We Know Is Falling was poppy enough to really qualify as pop-punk in the traditional—Fall Out Boy, Blink-182, Green Day—sense of the term. Similarly though, they didn’t really produce enough saccharine, self-indulgent tracks to count as emo until brand new eyes. There was even a moment after Riot! dropped that people really had to take Hayley Williams seriously as a formidable pop-rock star.
After a four year gap in the band’s catalogue, Paramore’s eponymous return didn’t really deliver on the promises that their 2007 and 2009 releases made. They had an opening to return in full force to the emo revival scene, to reclaim the legacy of brand new eyes and play up the confessional songwriter trope. Williams made the wise decision to distance herself from those kinds of stereotypical feminine artistic endeavors and commit herself to making the best music she knew how. The issue, I think, was that her fans weren’t really on board with that plan. They had seen what brand new eyes had to offer, and they didn’t want to let go. Williams went her own direction with Paramore and doubled down on the pop music influence that the band had spend years carefully integrating in small enough pieces that it had gone undetected as a central theme.
I don’t believe that most people listening to Paramore (the album) thought to themselves, “Yes, their next album will sound even more 80’s-pop than ‘Ain’t It Fun.’” I think we heard how “Now” and “Anklebiters” sounded and expected Paramore to once again return to the hard-rock, emo sound that they had left back with Riot! Instead (in a move probably predicted by at least some of the more astute listeners among us) they played up the sound they found in “Ain’t It Fun” and “Still Into You.” The albums entries into Paramore’s pop catalogue weren’t just for the catchy singles and album hype, they were a test for the band before they committed themselves to their new sound. So that’s what we have with After Laughter, a gamble of impressive large proportions, a test to see if they’ve lost their fans along the way or if their audience aged along with the band.
On the surface, After Laughter, is a drastic departure for Paramore, but I think that the album makes more sense in context. There are really two different ways that context matters to this album. First, what we’ll call temporal context. Does After Laughter do the same things for a 2017 audience that Riot! managed ten years ago in 2007? Second, discographical (is that even a real word?) context. In better language, this is a question of how After Laughter fits into Paramore’s catalogue. Is it the kind of album that we expect Paramore to produce, or would it be better released by the same people under a different band name? Lots of bands do this, they release music that they want to publish under a different name when it doesn’t fit properly into the larger band narrative. On the whole, I think After Laughter works in context. There are certainly elements of it that I’m not fond of but on a macro level it’s classic Paramore.
Let’s start with the positives: 80s pop and funk is really in right now. Either the new sound pandering to an audience primed to be receptive or it’s a step in a new direction for the band as a whole. It’s certainly temping to think of Paramore as the same band you’ve been listening to for a decade but their dedication to the new sound makes me think After Laughter is more than just a one-off attempt at top 40 radio play. I think to a certain extent Paramore is just in the business (of misery?) of making music that their fans will find cathartic. They’ve stayed pretty close to their emo roots with tracks like “Fake Happy” and “26” but the overall sound of the band now pulls them in the opposite direction of other so-called emo revival bands. They don’t sound like other emo revival bands (Balance and Composure, Into it. Over it., The World is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, or Sorority Noise) but their musical aim feels very much the same. The real question to ask, I think is this: What was Riot! doing in 2007? I think it was an entry into exactly the same kind of sub-pop semi-emo music that After Laughter is aimed squarely at. Paramore has always been on the cusp of the top 40, being angsty and sad in the shadow of the really popular kids. After Laughter is, in this sense, classic Paramore. It’s right on the cusp of mass appeal, but the lyrics and vibe of some of the later tracks are enough to keep the band from just following in the path of Walk the Moon and TALKING IS HARD.
There’s no shortage of angst from Hayley Williams on this album, but it’s tempered well by the up-beat backing tracks and vocal quips along the way. Williams’ contributions range track to track from sad to angsty to downright depressed. Lyrics like “For all I know / the best is over and the worst is yet to come” from tracks like “Told You So” set the tenor for the album lyrically even if the songs themselves sound upbeat. “Idle Worship” sounds angrier with lyrics like “I’m supposed to say something / Don’t hold your breath, I never said I’d save you, honey.” Finally, there are tracks that speak to Williams’ personal battle with depression that seem (I want to say counterproductive) less than uplifting. “Caught In the Middle” starts “I can’t think of getting old / It only makes me want to die.” So with this stark contrast between up-beat 80s glam-pop (the kind of music characterized by an almost glimmering perfection, a polish that the 90s found it necessary to reject in full) and the distinctly grittier lyrics, what kind of an album is this?
There’s something of the original Paramore that survived the transition from alt-rock to 80’s-pop. Make no mistake about it, this doesn’t sound like old Paramore at all, but it’s true to the band in other ways. Just like Riot! was a hallmark album for the alt-rock/emo kids from 2007, After Laughter speaks to a different kind of cultural malaise. The visceral anger and frenetic energy of the late 2000s has given way to a kind of alienation that Paramore perfectly captures in the juxtaposition of happy music with downright depressing lyrics. It’s a specific kind of sub-culture that Lorde has found a way to get through to, and now Hayley Williams is taking a swing at it too. There are certainly tracks that sound contrived (take “Tell Me How” for example) but on the whole Williams and her collaborators (Aaron Weiss from mewithoutYou on “No Friend”) manage to make the emotional disassociation they’re illustrating sound genuine. Big picture, Paramore nailed it. They managed to completely change their sound while putting out an album that speaks to the same audience (young, angsty teens for the most part) that they addressed a decade ago.
Just because the album works on a macro level like that doesn’t mean that it’s a total success though. It absolutely fits into cultural context and Paramore’s catalogue. It’s fresh take on the same themes they’ve always addressed and Paramore has been wise enough to change with the times to make music for the fans that have supported them for this long. On a micro level, the album has a few issues that are worth pointing out. While I’m personally a big fan of spoken word tracks, I’m not so fond of bands (*cough*Bleachers*cough*) placing their experimental tracks as second-to-last on the album. It doesn’t serve to punctuate the album properly, in my mind, and demands more out of the finale. After making your audience sit through a track that might just flop, it behoves the band to put out a great track to wrap up the album. Perhaps it’s an intentional choice, but I’m not particularly fond of how the album feels like it’s falling the whole way through. It starts out with the hit single “Hard Times” and just gets softer (or sadder?) until a downright mellow “Tell Me How” closes out the album with soft piano and more melodic vocals than anyone expected from listening to the preceding 11 tracks. The B side of the album doubles down on the angsty aspects of the first song without a substantial enough transition (musically speaking) from the first half, leading to an odd conglomeration of angst and pop that doesn’t blend as well as it did on the A side.
On the whole, After Laughter is a great example of what Paramore is capable of. It’s a solid addition to the band’s catalogue. It’s the kind of music that’ll attract new fans and appease old fans willing to re-think Paramore’s sound. Some of these songs will certainly make the top 40, and some people will be tempted to listen to some of these tracks in their car independent of radio play. It’s the kind of album that encourages happy casual listening while simultaneously saying to old fans: “We remember our old sound too, just listen a little harder.” I’m not 100% sold on the track organization, and I’m not really the biggest fan of new sound, but this music will certainly find a place on my playlist alongside contemporary artists and old Paramore alike.