Perhaps it’s a bit of a misnomer to describe this current phase of Hayley Williams’s career as her solo debut. Some listeners may remember her brief but rather successful (commercially, if not artistically) attempts to break into mainstream pop as a soloist with guest vocals on hit singles like rapper BOB’s “Airplanes” and producer Zedd’s “Stay the Night.” Her vocals were the strongest part of both those songs, but she was greatly let down by her collaborators, who delivered the kind of songs that even she couldn’t bring to life.
Williams has achieved some mainstream crossover success with Paramore, the indie rock band that established her name. “Ain’t It Fun,” a very uncharacteristic single from their self-titled 2013 album became a hit, with its sweetly acidic satire on sheltered youth and the sharp awakening of “the real world” over a xylophone-led instrumental. This song kicked off the second phase of Paramore’s career, away from more traditional rock instrumentation. Its ironically upbeat style set the template for their 2017 album After Laughter, which offered the same mix of sardonically peppy sounds and lyrical angst. However, in the years since, Williams and company seem to have taken more of an interest in smokier, more nocturnal electronic sounds, which she embraces wholeheartedly with her solo debut, Petals for Armor, which was released on May 8.
Williams introduces the world to this direction with the song “Simmer,” the first single for the album and its opener. It’s an appropriately titled, moodily off-kilter, deep-breath-and-plunge of a song, with a slick, tightly contained electronica groove and lyrical themes of tension and impotent maternal frustration. Williams delivers seething lines directed at high-profile sexual abusers through gritted teeth: “If my child needed protection from a f*cker like that man, I’d sooner gut him, cause nothing cuts like a mother.”
The most obvious point of influence for this sound seems to be King of Limbs-era Radiohead, but this is far more dance-able, direct and catchy music than Radiohead have ever tried to make. Williams packs her songs with half-exhaled inflections, sighs, gasps and breathy little vocal breakdowns. The words seem dredged up from the tips of her toes. It’s both playful and angst-ridden and immediately skin-prickling.
Although this sound could be considered derivative—and for the first few singles it did seem as if Williams had yet to find a confident sound for her solo material—Radiohead soon abandoned these sorts of electronic grooves after exploring them on their shortest and weakest album only. So rather than an exercise in redundancy, a more direct singer and songwriter like Williams is able to actually fulfill what Radiohead had prophesied but never quite delivered, attaching this aesthetic to a far more solid and satisfying collection of songs.
Williams does also diversify her influences deeper into the album, not all of these songs are scratching the same itch, and in the context of a full project, the differences in her sound stand out starkly, adding a fragrant eloquence to the rock style. A more ghostly vibe pervades tracks like “Leave It Alone” and “Creepin’” (perhaps the title here is a subtle Radiohead nod?), while songs like “Over Yet” and “Pure Love” are more gleaming synth pop offerings, the latter is something I could easily imagine Carly Rae Jepsen singing out. The coy, seductive “Sugar on the Rim” and “Watch Me While I Bloom” deliver the most overt and undeniable grooves on the album, styling Williams as a dance pop diva with some impeccable ’90s techno rhythms.
However, for every great, impactful instrumental on Petals for Armor, there’s a gratifying and articulate song for it to support, and that’s where Williams really shines with one of her best written and well-groomed crops of songs yet, delivering poetic but direct meditations on opening oneself up to being hurt and being loved. As “Pure Love” neatly summarizes the album’s main theme: “The opposite of love is fear, and I’m still trying to get used to how the former feels.”
The anxious, depressive “Leave It Alone” narrates a collapse of emotion following a soul crushing bereavement, expressing a suicidal drive: “Becoming friends with the noose that I made and trying to untie it,” and asking “who’s gonna lose me?”
“Why We Ever” is a soulful ballad of regret where she finds herself “on the stranger’s side of your door,” lamenting the loss of connection between herself and her partner.
The feminist themes established on “Simmer” return later in the record in a more personal fashion, in how stories of abuse have fueled her emotional defenses. “Creepin’” sees Williams lashing out in suspicion at the interest shown towards her. Interest which she is shocked and ashamed to find herself returning on “Sudden Desire,” where the album breaks out into her rock roots with a hollered, pained chorus, wrestling with her fear of vulnerability and her need for connection.
“Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris” takes the album’s flower motif and unpacks it as a bitter metaphor on self-image and emotional manipulation: “I think of all the wilted women, who crane their necks to reach a window, ripping all their petals off, just because he loves me not’ presenting a defining turning point on the record, as she confesses ‘I myself was a wilting woman, drowsing in a dark room, forgot my roots,” and determines that she “will not become a thorn in my own side.” This moment invites in the album’s freer second half as she begins rebuilding herself and her attachments.
It seems we may also be witnessing the birth of a new trend in album releasing, with Williams joining artists like Lauv, Moses Sumney, and perhaps more significantly, BTS, who this year released not only singles but whole EPs in advance of their full albums. Williams’s label Atlantic went even further, steadily drip-feeding singles from this project to eventually construct two full five-song EPs. From a 15-track album. By the time the album actually arrived, there were only five songs left that listeners hadn’t heard yet.
This may admittedly have had artistic motivations; the three sections of the album—the first two teased on Petals for Armor I and II—do offer somewhat different sounds, styles and themes. Part one is decidedly moodier, angrier, even despondent. This is where Radiohead’s influence is felt most strongly, as Williams attempts to climb down from the stool she has found herself on.
Part two is much lighter and airier beginning with a skit in which Williams says “I was in a depression but I’m trying to come out of it now.” This is followed by the peppy chorus of “Dead Horse,” in which, in a very similar fashion to Paramore’s After Laughter tracks, she tries to snap herself out of marinating in misery.
“My Friend” continues in this vein, seeing Williams find comfort in her personal ties and acceptance by others. Lines like “seen me from every side, still down for the ride,” showcase some of the predominant themes of the record: of self-expression and self-censorship. Emotions which finally achieve resolution in the euphoric and reassured last leg of the album. That opening cut “Simmer” saw Williams struggle to keep a lid on her emotions, but by the penultimate track she is inviting the listener to watch her while she blooms—this blooming being a shedding of the petal armour alluded to on “Simmer,” and in the album title.
It does therefore make some sense to break up the album in its release. However, the structure is more a fluid progression; there aren’t really clear break points in between these five-track sections.
Time will tell if this sort of release cycle bears fruit and becomes more widespread, but it does rather bleach album release day of the luster that such an assured and refreshing project deserved. Petals for Armor is definitely best heard as a full album. It’s 55-minute run time trips by gracefully and it’s the best way to appreciate the record’s blissfully cathartic emotional written arc, perfectly supported by its instrumental backing and Williams’s always attention-grabbing vocals.