Paramore's 'After Laughter' Is Something New, Built From Pieces Of The Past : The Record The fifth album by the one-time pop-punk champions ditches the four-letter qualifier to embrace a classic '80s pop sound. But there's still anxiety beneath the gloss.
NPR logo Paramore's 'After Laughter' Is Something New, Built From Pieces Of The Past

Paramore's 'After Laughter' Is Something New, Built From Pieces Of The Past

Paramore. Lindsey Byrnes/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Lindsey Byrnes/Courtesy of the artist

Paramore.

Lindsey Byrnes/Courtesy of the artist

What holds Paramore together? The beloved Tennessee band's decade-plus career is littered with false starts and laborious successes: More musicians have left the band than remain inside of it, and those who have departed did so caustically. Lifelong friendships have ended to keep this pop-punk powerhouse alive, and yet, its remaining members now find themselves at a place of critical reinvention. Being forced to constantly reevaluate what Paramore looks like has made them largely indestructible: When it feels like they've got nothing to lose, they shed their skin and become new. In 2017, Paramore is a pop band, far removed from the emo days that created them. They are a pop band that survives and thrives, and it's been a journey to get here.

At the end of 2010, after founding brothers Josh and Zac Farro left the group, Josh detailed the reasons for his departure on his Blogger. He referred to the pop-punk project as "a manufactured product of a major label," breaking down a then-muddled understanding of their dynamic: Frontwoman Hayley Williams was (and remains) the only person in Paramore signed to Atlantic Records, which he believed was treated by the label like a solo project with a few hired guns. The remaining members of the group — Williams, guitarist Taylor York and bassist Jeremy Davis — responded to the post in an MTV special, Paramore: The Final Word, essentially confirming most of what Josh said while making irrelevant his most biting claims and revealing that the band would continue on without the Farros.

The last album with Paramore's then-most familiar lineup, 2009's Brand New Eyes, would be their last straightforward pop-punk release, and with good reason — their authenticity, the highest form of social capital in Warped Tour world, was being questioned, and rumors of the band's fracturing abundant. Where Williams and the remaining crew spent most of their time citing Brand New Eyes as the album that brought the band closer than ever, it almost tore them apart. In many ways, it was the most freeing thing that could've happened to them because of what came next.

On Brand New Eyes, Paramore had worked with producer Rob Cavallo, a noted pop-punk ringer most famous for his work with My Chemical Romance and Green Day. But in 2013, Paramore brought in producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen (Nine Inch Nails, M83) to record its self-titled album. Meldal-Johnson promised a shift, and shift they did, though perhaps due more to the expanded role of Taylor York. Where Josh Farro had driven much of Paramore's songwriting in the past, his absence allowed York to take a more prominent creative role. The result was an album which the band dubbed "genre neutral," a surprising foray into new, straightforward pop music territory that worked to rid them of the four-letter qualifier.

The album's most notable single, "Ain't It Fun," featured some of York's experimentation, a particular marimba tone that made the song memorable. Williams was intrigued by York's sensibility and began to push those limitations too: A gospel choir was added to the song's bridge, a loving nod to the band members' personal faith and the group's Tennessee roots. "Ain't It Fun" stood out among the album's other singles in both its unique sound and structure, and earned Paramore a Grammy for Best Rock Song.

Historically, the weight put on a self-titled record suggests it's a band's definitive work, but Paramore is an album of transition. The pop moves are what made it their best, but even those experiments were punctuated by palm-muted power chords, self-imposed pop-punk safety nets. But it allowed them to identify the ceiling attached to quote-unquote emo music, and as soon as they did, they began to grow beyond it. After Laughter, the band's fifth studio album, released May 12, is Paramore's first full-on capital-P pop record.

But before they could get there, there was more turmoil. Bassist Jeremy Davis left the band a few months prior to recording. His departure would instigate a legal battle to determine whether he was an employee of the band or partner in its business — news that concerned Paramore fans worldwide in its familiarity. The issue was resolved last week on unreleased terms, but something sort of miraculous happened along the way: Paramore's original drummer, Zac Farro, rejoined the group after an ingenious social media reveal ( "I'm Back" limited edition t-shirts.) Farro returned for the album, later asked to join full-time. If there was ever a return-to-roots moment, it's After Laughter — and it almost didn't happen.

In an hour-long special with Zane Lowe for Apple Music, the band's first in-depth interview pre-album release, Williams revealed that Paramore was on the verge of collapse in 2016. The ongoing legal battles, subsequent lineup changes and fractured friendships might've made the end feel nigh before, but it was most recently when a breakup was almost realized — because this time, Hayley wanted out. "I was kind of flat-lined," she revealed to Lowe, "I think that if it weren't for Taylor, the band would be over. I'm tired of losing friends; I'm tired of doubting myself. Maybe if I'm not doing it at all there won't be anything to doubt. My heart is tired." York knew she was battling demons bigger than she had in the past, and could empathize, "There have been so many times I just wanted to quit this band," he explained. "I could just tell." In many ways, After Laughter isn't a record that exists because it had to, but because they fought for it. And they make it known at the very beginning.

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When After Laughter begins, it does so with a deceptively joyful gloss. The afro-pop synth of the single "Hard Times," invites the listener in, only for Williams' opening lines to cut them down with harsh reality: "All that I want / is to wake up fine / Tell me that I'm alright / that I ain't gonna die." Lyrically, Paramore has always been a very transparent band, and while the song's title might reflect an unpromising political climate, it most directly mirrors Williams' relationship with mental health. In that Apple Music interview, she revealed she's recently experienced anxiety and depression for the first time in her life. She established a timeline, noting exactly how recent her battles has been: "Three years ago? No. I don't know what happened .... It gave me a lot of compassion that I didn't have before."

Paramore has never been a challenging band to listen to, and with the new sonic endeavors into extreme pop accessibility, Williams, York and Farro have entered personal territory that hits home in a violently exposed fashion. For the first time, Williams' pain comes across with frustrating clarity, giving us an almost uncomfortable level of access. It's in every song — even in its love songs — but most apparent in After Laughter's ballads. In "26," at the very center of the album, she sings "Reality will break your heart / Survival will not be the hardest part / It's keeping all your hopes alive / When the rest of you has died." That's proceeded by "Fake Happy," a song that directly asserts a collective hopelessness with "We're all so fake happy / And I know fake happy," later complicating the emotion with the embarrassment not often explored in depression dialogue, the shame of feeling bad and the shame of feeling bad for feeling bad: "Don't ask me how I've been / Don't make me play pretend." She mentions crying nine times across After Laughter's 12 songs. Allusions to death and dying appear in three different tracks, the most harrowing in the up-tempo "Caught in the Middle," where Williams opens with "I can't think of getting old / It only makes me want to die." In some serious irony, the band no longer makes pop-punk music but still engages with some of the lyrical themes that trivialized the genre — but with a distinguishing maturity. Williams' anxiety comes from an introspective place — she no longer blames outside forces for her unhappiness.

After Laughter builds on the foundation of "Ain't It Fun" into new pop territories. Singles "Hard Times" and "Told You So" pull from Talking Heads worship, "Forgiveness" is the band's take on Haim's chiming California soft-rock revival, "Rose Colored Boy" grabs a synth line from a contemporized '80s sound, in line with something Sky Ferreira or Carly Rae Jepsen might chose to explore. Unlike the self-titled record, there are no real pop-punk moments on After Laughter — the chorus of "Grudges" is perhaps the most similar, a brilliant move considering the song's meaning. It's a sweet reflection of Williams' repaired relationship with both Farro brothers — Zac even harmonizes on the track.

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"Idle Worship" begins with a haunting, Ariel Pink-adjacent distant synth recorded beneath the mix, looped to give a sampling effect — your ear is drawn to Williams' contorted vocals. At the end of each verse, she speeds into a gravelly croak: "You're not the one who's hopeless," and "There's not a single person here's who's worthy." She's breaking the fourth wall to demand we not place our faith upon her while sounding nothing like herself. It's the perfect way to open the album's final chapter, where Paramore reveals a real comfort in experimentation. 'No Friend' is a post-hardcore-style interlude with spoken word vocals courtesy of Aaron Weiss of emo rockers Mewithoutyou. Weiss's words are nearly indiscernible, but a lyric sheet reveals references to past Paramore singles, bent out of shape. It cleanses, leaving room for the album closer, "Tell Me How," a soft R&B exploration disguised as a piano ballad. It's easy to imagine someone like Drake or The Weeknd trying their hand at it.

After Laughter is a record of unraveling, one that watched the fabric fall and managed to create something new from the old — in the current Paramore lineup, in guitarist Taylor York's penchant for '80s pop experimentation, in Williams' vulnerable lyricism performed in a voice outside her own, in Farro's familiarity, in their fight for compassionate reinvention. It's a record created close to death, it's a record that exists both in loss and the stage right after it. It's a miserable pop record, a complicated pop record, Paramore's first pop record. Here's hoping for many more.