Review Summary: "I don't know what it's gonna take to rid myself of the shame, but maybe it turns into something that helps me have compassion and not be in denial."Petals for Armor
could never have been a Paramore album. It's not just the sonic depth and breadth of it, the way the production skims along styles and sheds them as effortlessly as Hayley Williams' hooks translate to every genre she tries. It's the uncompromising, scalding, open rawness of it. The shockingly honest debut is more comparable to the work of Sharon Van Etten than any of Williams' contemporaries in the pop-punk scene; not in the music itself, but the way both women use music as an outlet, in the aftermath of years-long relationships where they were demeaned and made to feel worthless.
Make no mistake: Petals for Armor
is a bloodletting, one which vents years of rage, disgust and fury at the perpetrator of such a relationship, as well as the occasionally guilt-stricken freedom at escaping from it. Williams has referred to this creation process, which began with extensive therapy and diagnosis of depression and anxiety, as similar to drawing poison out of her veins and letting it dissipate in the light. It's a fitting metaphor in tandem with the artwork, where the three black squares on her hands – which cover up the previous tattoos there, initials of her ex-fiancee's name – seem to bleed upwards onto her face, a healing virus covering battlescars. Within two songs the emotional battleground is clear. "Now that I finally want to live, the ones I love are dying", she sings on "Leave it Alone", going on to mourn her grandmother's recent memory loss - a powerful moment in the formation of an album intrinsically concerned with memory and trauma. Meanwhile, anyone in the position to look back on a toxic or damaged relationship will immediately connect with the furious catharsis of "Cinnamon" and "Dead Horse", art-pop bangers which take the most elaborate route to Williams' sky-scraping hooks as if savouring every moment before an emotional victory. "I'm not lonely baby, I am free" is one such pulse-raising, fist-clenching moment, the first to offer a glimmer of hope. In the final stretch of the album, "Pure Love" revisits similar territory by way of Dua Lipa-esque bass grooves, explicitly calling back to "Cinnamon" to demonstrate how far we've come, having arrived at a place of emotional honesty and something close to exuberance.
Petals for Armor
often oscillates between emotional states like this, alternately grief-stricken and withdrawn or bombastic and inspirational. Fortunately, the album is divided into thirds around this process of healing. This rollout was designed to, in the artist's words, "include people on the journey in the same way that I experienced it" - thus Petals for Armor
takes us from a beginning mired in rage and depression, self-acceptance and touching tributes to friends in the middle section, to a bittersweet clarity in the final. What could be an overwhelming 55-minute rush of emotion in one instead becomes a complete, fleshed-out transformation - the sweetness of II
's "My Friend" provides the foundation for III
's 80s-indebted songs of life affirmation, for example. And while "Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris" has to overcome a water-treading chorus which the harmonies of boygenius can't quite keep afloat, the rest of the song more than justifies its centrepiece position. In a kind of continuity with album opener "Simmer", both songs remove layers of production and emotional guards for brutally raw second verses. In the earlier song, still parsing her anger and fulfilling her opening declaration that "rage is a quiet thing", Williams gently croons "if my child needed protection/from a fucker like that man/I'd sooner gut him." By the halfway point of the album, she looks back at the same period of time with some remove and a gentle acknowledgement that an internal change has occurred since: "I myself was a wilted woman, drowsy in a dark room/forgot my roots, now watch me bloom." This trilogy of songs comes to a close appropriately with "Watch Me While I Bloom", an effervescent song of triumph which nonetheless acknowledges the darkness of the preceding album: "I'm alive in spite of me, watch me while I bloom."
These three songs, apart from their sheer quality, function as the emotional barometer of Petals for Armor
, informing the headspace of the songs around them and pulling the willing listener further in. It's only fitting that when this arc has concluded, the artist is free to be at her most honest, in the album's two finest moments. The first requires nothing but a gorgeously mic'd piano - you can hear the impressions the keys make as fingers press on them - and a heartbreaking intimacy shaping lines like "I spent the weekend at home again, drawin' circles on the floor." The closing of "Why We Ever" recalls the most delicate moments of Copeland's career, the likes of "Strange and Unprepared" or "Ordinary", and the rhythm section enters only to accompany the turning point of the entire album towards its beautiful, love-dappled finale - "I just wanna talk about it, sorry for freaking out" - like the song itself is a flower in bloom.
The second moment is when "Crystal Clear", the project's closer, instead opts for a hazy ambience that feels like fragmented, piecemeal memories. You can appreciate the gorgeous song without knowing why that is exactly, although it's another example of how Petals for Armor
is an astonishingly giving
release, one which yields more and more rewards the further you investigate its finer details. Let me explain: Hayley Williams' first memory is of her parents arguing before their divorce when she was very young. Petals for Armor
doesn't reference this specifically, but it's an album built around the painful, bone-rattling process of digging out memories and letting them see the light, the necessary precursor to real, genuine healing. The album ends with a sample of Hayley's grandfather singing a song called "Friends and Lovers" which he wrote for his wife, intertwined with Hayley's own voice promising not to "give in to the fear". That's pretty fucking breathtaking, and the message is clear: it's up to us to choose the love and commitment of the people we come from over the trauma and damage we inevitably inherit from them, if that's what we decide to do.