Review Summary: Paramore attempts a bold leap forward to reinvent themselves, but falls flat in the process.
In 2010, Paramore faced a major departure of two founding members: Josh and Zac Farro. Following the rather messy split, Josh Farro would later go on to make some damning and incriminating blog posts about the way Paramore was run, including allegations that Hayley Williams was the only bandmate actually signed to a contract, as well as the only bandmate allowed to attend meetings with label executives. This left the remaining three members of Paramore in shambles, leaving them to defend themselves against these allegations, all while working on new material. Seeing as Josh Farro served as one of the primary songwriters up until this point, it’s understandable that Paramore would go through some form of an identity crisis in the years that followed.
This newfound inner turmoil is what would lead the band to create their polarizing 2013 self-titled album. At the time, this was considered by many to be their worst album yet. However, their self-titled album would also prove immensely successful, even winning the band their first Grammy for the song ‘Ain’t it Fun’. Naturally, fans were curious what direction the band would move in after this record, but nobody expected the news that followed: Zac Farro announced with the rest of the band that he would be returning as the drummer for their upcoming work. Though it was good news that a founding member had returned, it was clear that change was on the horizon for Paramore.
Following his initial run with the band, Zac Farro remained surprisingly quiet and out of the spotlight, working on personal art projects and forming the indie pop band ‘Halfnoise.’ He seemingly went through an entire aesthetic transformation, going from a pop-punk, rebellious drummer to a reserved, stylish, and artistic man. This clearly wasn’t the same drummer that left the band in 2010, so fans were both nervous and excited for what new contributions he would give to the band in 2016 and beyond.
I understand that this has been a lot of backstory for just one album, but understanding the context of the creation of After Laughter makes it much more forgivable that Paramore would morph their sound into a new blend of indie pop and new wave, while only showing glimmers of their pop-punk roots. While this bold step forward could, and should, have been a triumphant new beginning for Paramore, they mostly fall flat on their face.
One of the first, and most noticeable downgrades that come with After Laughter is the songwriting quality. Album opener ‘Hard Times’ is enjoyable enough, but features some rather elementary lyrics about the basic feelings of sadness and overcoming adversity. ‘Caught in the Middle’ is quite similar; it can be a fun song to listen to but the lyrics about feeling stuck between two choices feel very basic and immature; they certainly don’t sound like they came from a band that’s been making music for the better part of 12 years. The majority of songs feel quite a bit like ‘Caught in the Middle,’ in the sense that even when the songwriting isn’t offensively bad, it still comes across as very basic, and sometimes lazy, compared to their earlier work. The worst offender of lazy songwriting is ‘Told You So,’ which is one of the most mind numbingly repetitive songs Paramore has ever made. The phrases “I told you so” and “they told me” appear more than a combined 20 times over it’s brief three minute runtime. It doesn’t fare much better for the bridge, which is just the line, “throw me into the fire, throw me in, pull me out again” repeated over and over. Seeing as this is the same band to write such well-written songs like ‘Part II,’ ‘Last Hope,’ and ‘Monster’ in just the last few years, most of the lyrical content of After Laughter is disappointing.
One of the most surprising, yet underwhelming parts of After Laughter is the interlude, ‘No Friend.’ mewithoutYou’s Aaron Weiss is featured, only for you to hear distant, inaudible ramblings from him for three and a half minutes. The vocals are mixed so poorly and quietly that you’ll more than likely need to look up the words to understand what exactly Weiss is rambling about, which is disappointing considering just how neat ‘No Friend’ should have been. It’s a very cleverly written track, featuring numerous references (both subtle and not-so-much) to old Paramore songs and lyrics. For fans, this should have been a highlight of the album, and a form of scavenger hunt for lyrical analysts to pick apart and identify all the references being made. But the choice to leave the vocals inaudible for the whole track ends up being its downfall, which subsequently means that ‘No Friend’ is the most skippable and unnecessary song on the record.
Instrumentally speaking, the album is mostly okay. Though Taylor York doesn’t do anything worth writing home about, he remains just as versatile a guitarist as he always was. The same is true for returning drummer Zac Farro, though his influence on drums is much easier to hear on this album, especially when compared to his drumming on some of Paramore’s early work. There are a few tracks though, such as ‘Forgiveness,’ that leave just a bit more to be desired from the band.
The thing about Paramore’s instrumentals is that they have never been very technically proficient. They mainly serve as a backing for Hayley Williams' powerful vocals, which for all of Paramore’s lifespan has been the main draw to their sound, and what separates them from their genre peers. Unfortunately, Hayley Williams gives what is likely the most reserved performance of her career, even compared to her newest venture into solo work with Petals For Armor. To clarily, the problem isn’t that Williams sounds bad - she’s clearly still one of the most talented female vocalists in rock music - but she barely does anything outside her comfort zone. With the exception of ‘Idle Worship’ (which has a very spastic and uncharacteristcally energetic delievery from Williams), it’s abundantly clear that she is doing little more than going through the motions.
As a whole, the album is far from being terrible. Though Williams may be going through the motions, she still sounds wonderful in most songs. ‘Fake Happy’ and ‘26’ (the latter being the token ballad of the album) feature terrific vocal performances, and even stellar songwriting as well. Zac Farro even makes a very brief vocal performance on ‘Grudges,’ leading to a delightful bridge that sees both Farro and Williams harmonizing together about how they should have buried the hatchet years earlier than they actually did. All in all, there’s probably a little something for all fans of Paramore to enjoy on this album.
After Laughter was clearly made with the best intentions, and it’s great to see most of Paramore’s original lineup back together and getting along again. However, as a collective piece of music, the album is immensely disappointing, and almost every aspect feels like a step down in some regard. Hayley Williams just doesn’t sound quite as enthusiastic anymore, the songwriting has taken multiple steps toward becoming universally simplistic and immature, and the band seems to be further and further distancing themselves from their old identity.
In the end, the song ‘Idle Worship’ proves to represent the album itself very well. On the track, Williams sings about the inner turmoil related to being an idol for so many young fans, and she ponders the possibility of letting everyone down by not doing what the fans want her to do. In that sense, Williams deserves praise for stepping out of character and doing something new while knowing the possible repercussions. Unfortunately, After Laughter does exactly what she was afraid it would do: let’s us down.