“Rage is a quiet thing,” sings Hayley Williams in the opening moments of ‘Petals For Armor’, exhaling heavily and contorting her voice into a barbed snarl. “You think that you’ve tamed it, but it’s just lying in wait”. The solo album she always insisted she would never make has arrived after a challenging decade marked by internal conflict with her pop-punk band Paramore. The record makes sense of the rage that she previously bottled up.
Paramore’s revolving door of members hurt Williams deeply: she often compares the group to family, and for much of the last decade she felt like hers had been torn apart. Having reconciled with formerly estranged founding member Zac Farro for their 2017 album ‘After Laughter’ – which represented a change in direction, exploring ’80s-inspired synth-pop – the band felt a sense of relief, but unanimously agreed that it was time to take a break all the same. And as touring wound up, everything Hayley Williams had been repressing bubbled up to the surface. She entered therapy, got a divorce and moved to a cottage in Nashville to start afresh. She made ‘Petals for Armor’ by accident.
“I felt a lot of anxiety about… do people want a crazy big pop record?,” she told NME of the album for this week’s cover feature. “What if this isn’t that, and it’s a letdown? When I ended up writing some songs that were poppier and dancier… am I a sell-out?’
Informed by a diverse set of influences, ‘Petals for Amor’ marks another sonic departure for Williams – though her knack for offsetting dark and menacing lyrics with a sugary-sour melody very much remains. Vague, flickering hints of Solange, SZA and British soul group Sade are at the heart of tracks such as ‘Taken’ and ‘Why We Ever’. These are not quite R’n’B songs, but they are infused with that genre’s strut. Pulsing and stuttering, ‘Sugar on the Rim’ sounds like a bassy dance thumper blasting from the hefty speakers of a rapidly speeding car.
‘Over Yet’ is Williams’ answer to a Rocky training montage: intricate, atmospheric guitars pick up steam and build into a hulk of sound – half-math rock, half power-pop. ‘Pure Love’ wouldn’t sound out of place on Paramore’s poppy ‘After Laughter’ and ‘Simmer’ and ‘Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris’ share a contemplative core, melodically bringing to mind the likes of Radiohead and Warpaint.
From a less skilled artist, such a disparate-sounding album might morph into a collage of loose touchstones. Hayley Williams, on the other hand, draws clearly from other artists but retains her voice at the centre. Her frankness cuts through across ‘Petals For Armor. ‘Leave It Alone’ is one of the most quietly devastating songs she has ever written; she wrote the song when her grandmother suffered serious head trauma and almost died after a fall. “Don’t nobody tell me that God don’t have a sense of humour,” Williams quips dryly, “’Cause now that I want to live – well, everybody around me is dyin’”. It’s an incisive dissection of grief, charged with a grim chuckle.
‘Dead Horse’ is another moment that pulls no punches, detailing a decade of pain atop fizzy pop melodies; Williams addresses the end of her marriage with searingly honesty. “Held my breath for a decade / Dyed my hair blue to match my lips,” she sings, addressing her past self, who pasted on a brave face. “Cool of me to try,” she says wryly, “pretty cool I’m still alive.”
“I did not want to write about my past that way,” Williams admitted to NME during our interview. “I really didn’t. I’ve never had a problem singing about the things that make me mad. I’ve done that with Paramore our whole career, but I’ve learned how to articulate it in different ways as we’ve grown up.”
Though it draws from dark source material, there’s a certain warmth here all the same. Williams often speaks of gleaning joy from the small things: a spiced bun fresh from the oven in ‘Cinnamon’, a toxic figure morphed into a cartoonish vampire and weakened on ‘Creepin’.
The underlying message of Hayley Williams’ stunning solo album is this: wear your flaws like a coat of gleaming armour and find strength in being open and vulnerable. This would be a prescient message at any time, but seems even more so in today’s uncertain climate. We could all do with a little kindness.
Release date: May 8
Record label: Atlantic Records