Well this is a nice surprise. I’ve never paid this band much attention, due to my general irritation with labelmates Fall Out Boy and the silly middle-class self-pity and even sillier death fixation of emo music. A quick check back to 2013’s Paramore confirmed my biases were correct. That album’s adoption of 80s synths and other pop concessions made it an unexpected hit with critics at the time, and their first no. 1 album in the US and UK to boot. But far as I saw it, the bombastic and humourless overproduction smothered any suggestion of pop sensibility, and it felt designed expressly to appeal to unstable teenagers. Not for me.
So imagine my shock at the pure pop brilliance, now immersed fully in new wave, evidenced on the first 5 tracks of After Laughter, with hook after hook hitting home, trick after trick working unforeseen magic. First listen gave me a piquant musical adrenaline rush to rival Grimes’ Art Angels – that’s quite a compliment in my books – whilst several listens in my excitement has only slightly diminished. I still adore many of its surprises: the marimba and bongos that open out and bleed into the crunchy synth-rock hooks on ‘Hard Times’, the ‘Low-key! No pressure!’ chants on the addictive ‘Rose-Colored Boy’, the supremely melodic basslines and Afropop-derived guitar licks on ‘Forgiveness’ (a superb example of the never-better interplay between the band members), the soaring choruses on ‘Told You So’ and ‘Fake Happy’ (and indeed all the other songs). Haters gonna hate, and a quick check on their Facebook page confirmed my suspicion that some ‘fans’ (though not all) would be screaming the moronic, depressingly mindless phrase ‘sellout’. Me, I’m high on their rejection of emo trappings in favour of good old-fashioned pop effusiveness, and I sincerely hope they can take this all the way up the charts again (Harry Styles be damned).
Sadly, it doesn’t sustain, and the last 4 tracks are as weak consistently as the first 5 are strong. Baffling production choices occur, such as on ‘No Friend’, which buries the vocals deep down making them indecipherable – for artistic reasons that are equally indecipherable. And ‘Tell Me How’, a piano sort-of ballad that closes the album, unfortunately only serves to expose the weakness of lead singer Hayley Williams’ voice, which can carry a tune just fine, but only if it requires belting out, and just isn’t subtle enough to sustain a whole album of dynamic changes. I found myself yearning for Rihanna, who carried with ease the album-closing ballad on ANTI, a similar pop tour-de-force, and with a depth of personality that Hayley Williams can only dream of.
It’s best to ignore the lyrics as well, as I have in this review, because they don’t seem to have shrugged off the emo shackles so well as the music. You might think ‘all I want is a hole in the ground’ and ‘I can’t think of getting old/It only makes me want to die’ are windows into depression, but I think they’re shutters obfuscating the deeper beauty of the album. The pop ebullience of the first few tracks (plus the terrific ‘Pool’ and ‘Grudges’) is the real reason to purchase After Laughter: wide open and searching for fun, not to mention dancefloor giddiness, the band discover a depth of musicality in the childishness of these highpoints that they never managed to find in teenagerdom.
Paramore of this please.