Review Summary: Set to Simmer Between the Temperature Extremes of the Music's Chill and the Lyrics' Heat
The easy critical analysis of this album is that it’s the exact opposite of Paramore’s penchant for big guitars, bold hooks, and belting vocals; that they’ve been replaced by an intoxicating, intimate minimalism, often carried by little more than warm bass grooves; skittering, off-kilter drum patterns; and mellow, jazzy guitar chords. The more difficult critical analysis is that, for all the ostensible sonic differences, both seem to enjoy the art of songwriting counterpoint. For Paramore it was the bitter-sweetness that came with singing dark lines like “hard times gonna make you wonder why you even try” to the neon-lit sounds of 80s pop. For Hayley on Petals for Armor
, it’s the way in which the music’s attenuated intensity and the restrained vocals—frequently whispered, spoken, and cried, with dozens of small, colorful inflections in between—seem at odds with the rich, layered portrait of suffering and recovery she’s often writing about.
The aesthetic goals of the album are hinted at in the opening lines of Simmer
: "Rage is a quiet thing / You think that you've tamed it / But it's just lying in wait." There is, indeed, a hushed menace to the music here, like an agitated, coiled viper. You can hear in the music’s opening salvo when Hayley’s beatboxing enters over the electronic pulse a split-second later than it should, creating a slightly unnerving feeling; or the way verses pause before Hayley’s high-pitched, 16th-note “give in” signals the chorus's need for “control,” with the two syllables sung in lower, steadier 8th-notes. Later in the chorus she asks “how to draw the line between wrath and mercy?" and one way to view the music here, and throughout the album, is as a sonic depiction of the struggle in finding that middle ground, and of how to use art to tame the history of trauma.
This struggle between the trauma’s rage and the art’s ability control it most satisfyingly manifests in the way the artier aspects of the music often transition to the poppier aspects and vice versa. Take Cinammon
, where Hayley’s near-tribalistic opening vocals are supported by a stuttering, almost drunkenly staggering drum pattern that shifts from accenting downbeats in eight-notes to upbeats in 16th-notes midway through the measure. The bass is late to enter and hints at providing a steady groove, but proves illusive, while the drums keep shifting the pattern—now shuffling, now skipping or adding an accent, now accenting with a different drum—and the tribal vocals mutate to an electronicized harmony. It’s not until the chorus that things snap into place with a 4/4 beat, steady bass, and Hayley’s seductive vocals. So the anxious, asymmetrical verses serve as ironic counterpoint to the positivity that Hayley is “not lonely” but “free,” instead suggesting the mania inherent in paranoid lines like “I keep on every light” and in “talk(ing) to the dog;” while the chorus moves to the subjective perspective of comfortable domestication. It’s the difference between how the crazy cat lady is seen by others, and how she sees herself.
For all its artiness Petals for Armor
still finds plenty of fun moments that stand out like ear candy oases, especially in the middle and ending sections. Dead Horse’s
bumping verses effortlessly transition into an infectious chorus, while Over Yet
returns to the 80s homage of Paramore’s After Laughter
, but here emphasizing the moodier aspects with its cascading synths, funky bass, and 16th-note hi-hat work. Though even here the jazzy guitar work in the bridge adds a touch of refinement. Pure Love
is similar, though set as a slower, mid-paced R&B jam with muted guitars and velvety synths, until the chorus where the synths shift to a bright shimmer and Hayley delivers the album’s catchiest vocal line; though it has competition from Watch Me While I Bloom,
the most straight-forward funk track here, though even that song is multi-faceted with its spacey, vaguely psychedelic bridge.
Though the album is consistently strong, if forced to pick one track to illustrate the album’s greatness it would be the multi-layered Why We Ever
. It also begins as a slow, sensual R&B track—pleasing, if not particularly profound; but around the 2-minute mark the music fades, transitioning with Hayley's wearied vocals. In its place is a resonant piano, recorded with a demo-like immediacy, so close you can hear the keys being pressed, over which Hayley's vocals enter with a soft poignancy, mixing pain, regret and wistfulness, repeating "I just want to talk about it," until they too eventually fade into nothingness. As much as the album excels in controlling the thematic trauma through the art, it’s moments like this where the hurt is allowed to linger in its raw form that the reticent coolness elsewhere pays its biggest dividends. The song is made even more powerful coming after Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris
, a track that never rises above a murmur, expressing itself lyrically through layers of poetic metaphor and musically through a smooth, jazz-ish aesthetic. Leave It Alone
is an earlier precursor to Why We Ever’s
stripped-down emotionality, though here set in a hazier, dreamier mode, with the music serving as an opiate's analgesic to Hayley’s anguished lyrics.
In retrospect, the reason I didn't care for the singles is simply because this isn't a singles album. As good as individual tracks are, they are magnified exponentially in the context of the album, especially when you allow yourself to sink into its atmosphere and tune into its aesthetic progressions. Given the album’s 15-song, 56-minute runtime, it’s easy to criticize for being bloated. It’s also easy to criticize it for, at times, sounding a lot like Radiohead circa-In Rainbows
(though the opening vocals of Watch Me While I Bloom
might have you mistaking Hayley for Bjork). If Petals for Armor
is neither perfectly consistent nor wholly original, it’s still one of the most meticulously crafted pop albums in a good while. It’s also a tonally complex rollercoaster ride, with every track being a mix of moods, often ineffable, delivered with a level of subtlety and sophistication that’s incredibly rare in the genre, requiring sensitivity and a willingness to get lost in its emotional currents. It requires your full attention to absorb without demanding it, or being overbearingly dense as progressive music can be. The end result is about as rewarding both intellectually and emotionally as pop music gets.