Album review: Hayley Williams’ solo debut ‘Petals for Armor’ is a masterful act of introspection
(Courtesy of Atlantic Recording Corporation)
“Petals for Armor”
Atlantic Recording Corporation
May 8, 2020 4:57 p.m.
Hayley Williams released two-thirds of “Petals for Armor” in the months leading up to the date of its debut.
Much to the dismay of a handful of her male listeners who would’ve preferred a traditional record rollout, the Paramore singer forged her own staggered solo debut release plan. And her 15-track album does what many cannot through its tactful three-part separation and track order. It takes listeners on a deeply personal journey through her nearly decade-long relationship, segmented perfectly to unite and show her independence from the opinions of men, romantic relationships and the pressure of the public eye.
The 10 songs that make up the first two sections hit listeners’ ears in the first few months of the year. With the final third releasing Friday to complete the album, the mainly R&B- and soft-pop-influenced record effectively guides its narrative as Williams experienced it herself over time.
And despite pushback she received from male fans on Twitter, by stretching her release over a span of time rather than all at once, the aggressive tones of album opener “Simmer” seamlessly morphed to the darker songs such as the 10th track “Why We Ever” and proved fruitful for storytelling. Rather than bulk listening, listeners were prompted to experience Williams’ own feelings as they unfolded slowly in her own life.
But immediately snapping into a clear and tumultuous storyline, the slow and bass-dominant “Leave it Alone” finds Williams in a state of self-reflection. Over her creamy vocals, the singer contemplates her own mortality in tandem with those around her. Even while feeling relatively emotionally satisfied, she grapples with loss. Confused and stumbling, she sings “Now that I finally wanna live / The ones I love are dying.”
Such visceral feelings about losing those around her lead Williams into the only place she feels relatively safe – the confinement of her own home. And it’s moments like these, when the singer is truly alone and contemplative, that she can process her own emotions to unload them on listeners. The third track, “Cinnamon,” acts as an ode to both the singer’s own home and her dog Alf, successfully bringing a playful energy to balance the album’s somber opening.
Almost asynchronous drums also bounce perfectly behind lazily drifting “oohs” and “ahhs” ringing out in each chorus. The track’s bridge offers a welcome confidence from Williams, suddenly picking up the tempo as she victoriously proclaims “I’m not lonely / I am free.” She relishes the comfort she feels in her home to be “feminine,” embracing her freedom for self-expression in ways she can’t always do while being judged in her celebrity spotlight.
But Williams isn’t unrealistic. She weighs the pros of being alone with her genuine want for human, romantic connection with fifth track “Sudden Desire.” While the song follows the same simplistic and relatively stripped back opening as others before it, its explosive and gritty chorus save it from blending into surrounding tracks. The bombastic belting also helps communicate the singer’s quick realization of her unanticipated yearning.
Quickly faced with romantic fallout, “Petals for Armor” masters the portrayal of love, heartbreak and what it means to be a woman catering to public’s judgment. Williams is strikingly honest in a voice memo that opens the reggae beats of “Dead Horse,” wherein she shares that exploring her love life has left her “in a depression, but … trying to come out of it.” While scattering coy allusions to past positive songs she’s written about the lover who left her in such a state, Williams accepts that when her relationships end, they leave her suffering in the public eye.
But ultimately this is what her career has destined her for – leaving her ex-lover with yet another song to their name.
And Williams is strongest on her debut solo record when she contemplates such paradoxical ideas – because although love is what she craves, it is not what makes her stronger. “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris” and “Watch Me While I Bloom” both pair minimalist kick drum and hi-hat beats with a bassline-heavy sequence to let the singer’s self-reflection take priority.
In the former, Williams cleverly presents a play on the classic “Roses are Red, Violets are Blue” poem, applying it to her experience with relationships in which she is the rose and her lover is the violet. She refuses to make her identity dependent on the circumstances of a man being in her life just because, “He loves me now, he loves me not.” And “Watch Me While I Bloom” echoes the positive results of such a self-dependent mindset, as she asks listeners to watch her while she takes her roots out of the ground and instead reaches for the sky.
Though she has garnered criticism for her release methods and has faced hardship from her years both in and out of the spotlight, Williams finds room to share the inspiring positivity in “Petals for Armor’s” brighter tracks. The 80s-style groovy basslines and layered drums of “Over Yet” stand to remind listeners that while heartbreak, loss and struggle are cyclical in nature, self-value is what is most important to stay positive and “get out of your head.”
“Petals For Armor” steps outside of anything Paramore fans have seen from Williams in her usual frontwoman role. Her ability to be unapologetically introspective is enough to keep anyone coming back for more heartbreaking lyrical revelations.