Review Summary: Mask off.
2017’s After Laughter
could best be described as the sound of desperation. No, not in the sense of Paramore themselves getting desperate, though they were
facing many roadblocks during this era. I’m referring to the actual tone of the record: songs that gleefully jaunt along in spite of the sadness lurking beneath, as the lyrics paint a picture of a narrator who’s dying for just a little dose of positivity. And, interestingly enough, the happy music / sad lyrics
contrast actually made the music itself even sadder. Drive your mental spear into any one of After Laughter
’s many illusory mirrors, and you’ll find a more unvarnished portrait of the true “hard times” lurking beneath the facade. It made for an incredibly captivating listen, as the youthful energy of earlier Paramore outings like All We Know Is Falling
had been traded in for a more reserved, cautious experience.
But now we have 2023’s This Is Why
. And as soon as Hayley Williams utters the first few lyrics, one can detect a change of tone from the previous album:
”If you have an opinion, maybe you should shove it.”
It’s blunt, direct, and immediately makes the message clear: the mask of After Laughter
has fallen off, and Paramore are ready to face the anxiety and fear of a post-COVID world head-on. To facilitate this change, the new wave influences of After Laughter
have been lessened in favor of a tightly-wound, distinctly cold post-punk sound; Williams treads the line between sarcastic, melancholic, and angry, while Taylor York and Zac Farro display more instrumental chemistry than ever before. Percussive, funky guitar stabs are met with intricate, tense drum patterns during the more energetic cuts (title track, “The News”, “C’est Comme Ca”), while softer passages allow for York to conjure up dreamy, almost psychedelic chord sequences (found on “Big Man, Little Dignity”, “Crave” and “Thick Skull”). But one through-line remains in the entirety of This Is Why
: even in the most “satisfied” or “happy” tracks, there’s always an undercurrent of tension and apprehension.
Or, to put this another way, This Is Why
effectively serves as the yang to the yin of After Laughter
. The latter was a deceptively bouncy affair that tried to mask its inner turmoil; meanwhile, the former finds the band in
said turmoil and grasping for any source of light they can. Take the aforementioned “The News”, for instance: Williams laments the constant negative news cycle, and every attempted coping mechanism (shutting one’s eyes, treating the problem as normal) utterly fails. Meanwhile, the guitars and drums are tightly, intricately coiling around the listener in math rock fashion, perfectly simulating the anxiety and paranoia of the lyrics. What even happens to the narrator? Who knows. A true solution is never presented, leaving the piece in a state of limbo. “Figure 8” is another prime example of unresolved tension, as Williams brings us into the aftermath of a toxic relationship; even in the fallout, she’s still in a constant inner conflict – a mental figure-8, if you will. Again, this is wonderfully complimented by the uneasy, jittery nature of the instrumentation.
While Paramore have always had hints of melancholy and alienation – they did earn the coveted “emo” tag, after all – This Is Why
is the most defeated
they’ve ever sounded. But much like my “desperation” description regarding After Laughter
, in no way does that defeatedness translate to the band’s actual efforts. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that This Is Why
has even more inner-band chemistry and connectedness than After Laughter
did. The three-piece is so incredibly tight and focused here, powering through these tracks near-effortlessly – which is especially impressive on the more “math-y” cuts like “The News” and “Figure 8”. Meanwhile, songs like “Big Man, Little Dignity” and “Running Out of Time” show York and Farro’s adeptness at switching styles at a moment’s notice, alternating between dreamlike echo-swathed chords and tight new-wave-meets-funk grooves.
It’s worth nothing that not everything
works here. “C’est Comme Ca”, for instance, has some interesting ideas – sarcastic spoken word verses, catchy-as-hell bridge – that are completely derailed by the incessantly annoying chorus (if I hear "la la la la" one more goddamn time...). Meanwhile, “You First” is a generic alt-rock/pop-punk tune that could have made it on any Paramore record; nothing too interesting or new there. But all is forgiven when you take a gander at This Is Why
’s penultimate track, “Crave” – an absolute gem of a song that marries beautiful dream-pop guitar melodies with some of Williams’ best vocal hooks to date. It also happens to be the most positive and hopeful moment on the record, as the singer makes peace with her tension and lamentations about the past and future.
Really, those two words sum up most of This Is Why
: “tension” and “lamentations”. Despite the fact that Paramore were likely in a better place (mentally, personally, etc.) here than they were with After Laughter
, there’s a distinct fusion of melancholy and anxiousness that courses through this entire tracklist. And though much of the subject matter is very personal to Williams, there’s a fascinating sense of universality to This Is Why
. It’s as if she’s branching some of her personal demons and frustrations out to the concerns of the public itself, with subtle (and not-so-subtle) nods to political and societal issues. Much of the record feels as though our narrator is screaming into the void and receiving absolute silence, and that makes for an extremely compelling counterpart to the “false” positivity of After Laughter
. And in that constant game of lyrical and stylistic tug-o-war, This Is Why
provides an excellent look into its counterpart’s darker, more brutally honest underbelly.