It’s hard to overstate just how tumultuous the past decade of Paramore’s career has been. Since before the recording of Brand New Eyes the band has been regularly rocked by near career-ending shifts. While some bands are lucky enough to go through no lineup changes throughout their career, or when lineup changes do happen the splits are often amicable, Paramore has had no such luck. I don’t need to rehash any of the details of this unrest except to say this: While the turmoil would crush almost any other band, the members that have remained, or returned, to Paramore have fought through all adversity to arrive at After Laughter, the crowning achievement of their career so far.
At once a deeply wistful look back at the past decade-plus of the band’s history and a clear eyed assessment of the future, After Laughter is a record about the moments between total heartbreak and absolute elation. These in-between moments allow us to pick up the pieces broken during the former and come down from the euphoric high of the latter, and reassess what our purpose is here on this floating rock. These moments make up the vast totality of our time on Earth, but for some reason they don’t often feel as romantic.
To use one one of the album’s song titles, After Laughter is a record that is “Caught in the Middle” between joyous sounding music and some of the most dark, introspective lyrics that vocalist Hayley Williams has ever written. The aforementioned song, which begins with a bouncy bass line and could easily have been a No Doubt song from the 90s, starts off with Williams baring her soul and her insecurities: “I can’t think of getting old / It only makes me want to die / And I can’t think of who I was / ‘Cause it just makes me want to cry.” It’s these moments that make After Laughter the most honest Paramore record to date.
Nowhere is this seen more than on “Fake Happy,” a song about how we as humans have a tendency to put on a brave face for the people around us. I have thought a lot about this recently, in light of realizing just how dehumanizing social media is. We let the world see into a tiny sliver of our lives, the brightest moments, while blocking out the darkest parts from view. It’s an inherently unhealthy way to live life, a fact that Williams seems to have come to terms with during the writing process of After Laughter. “Fake Happy” is a song about learning to be open and honest about your insecurities and fears (“If I go out tonight, dress up my fears, you think I’ll look alright with these mascara tears.”), displaying them proudly instead of try to hide them (“I’m gonna draw my lipstick wider than my mouth, and if the lights are low they’ll never see me frown.”)
On a record where Paramore wear their Fleetwood Mac influence on their sleeve, “26” is the band’s “Landslide.” There’s the obvious musical comparison in how a simple acoustic ballad swells into a string composition, one that emphasizes the simple timeless tune in a way that feels effortless instead of overpowering. But lyrically, the song is as stirring and contemplative a tune as “Landslide.” Featuring a clever callback to the band’s 2009 single “Brick By Boring Brick,” “26” develops into a song about holding on to dreams even when your surroundings seem bleak. Williams synthesizes all of the wisdom she has learned over the course of recording the album into the song’s bridge: “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 / So let it break your heart.” Without doubt, this is After Laughter’s defining moment.
In a stroke of brilliance, the band enlists Aaron Weiss of meWithoutYou to helm the song “No Friend,” which functions as both an “Idle Worship” outro and a standalone song. The song features a number of lyrical references to Paramore’s early material, “another song I wrote that’s too long god knows no one needs (Looking Up) more misguided ghosts / more transparent hands / they drop a nickel in our basket and we’ll do our Riot dance.” Of all the endlessly fascinating things about “No Friend,” one of the most interesting is that it is essentially a meWithoutYou song embedded within the construct of a pop record. The band apparently gave Weiss free reign to create his own lyrics for the track, which have the same dense, anti-chronological storytelling Weiss’s music often displays. Weiss’s vocals also seem intentionally buried in the mix, to have the musical effect of forcing you to “lean in,” listening closely to the track to catch his words and to turn the turn the track up to ear splitting levels and let its trance-like quality wash over you.
I do think in all honesty I could spend days deep-diving into every track, and I think that just speaks to how meticulously crafted this 12-song collection is.
At about the midway point of the album, Paramore comes through with the perfectly timed “Pool,” which sounds like the perfect mid-2000s pop song. I grew up listening to a Christian radio station in central New Jersey, and the first song I can ever remember really falling in love with and calling my favorite song was Steven Curtis Chapman’s “Dive.” I doubt the connection between the two songs was intentional, but listening to “Pool” reminds me of the feeling of growing up listening to that song and the exhilaration of falling in love with music.
While the throat-shredding vulnerability of “All I Wanted” and the post-rock bombast “Future” are both iconic previous closers, the band throws a complete sonic curveball with After Laughter’s closing track “Tell Me How”. They settle in to the most mellow conclusion of their career. The sparse instrumentation puts the emphasis on Hayley’s frank, personal lyrics. “Of all the weapons you fight with, your silence is the most violent.” It’s a contemplative way to round a record that belies an unsettled nature to Williams’s personal issues. Just as “Fake Happy” evaluates society’s tendency to put on a brave face in public, “Tell Me How” excoriates the idea that you have to have to have a situation figured out before you can write about it.
One of the many things I find most rewarding about Paramore is just how much they seem to be open-eared listeners of music, and that they trust that their fans are too. You can hear that in their praise of Talking Heads or OK Computer, or in their statement that they were trying to rip off Tame Impala when they first started writing for After Laughter. But most importantly, you can hear it in the music, which pays great respects to the movements of pop music throughout the past few years towards rhythmic percussion, Caribbean/tropical beats, and bombastic, 80s guitar sounds, while still synthesizing in so many of the things that make Paramore who they are.
You can hear echoes of Paramore’s past here in the ever-present characteristics of its three members. Hayley’s savant-like ear for melody and bridge-writing talents, Taylor York’s delicate acoustic guitar playing, Zac Farro’s frenetic drumming style. But more importantly, it’s a record rooted in the present. Most remarkably, it’s a record where a cheerleader chant as audacious as “Low Key! No Pressure! Just hang with me and my weather!” can stand alongside a string quartet and a xylophone hook on the same side of one record, with none of the three feeling out of place. It’s just a seamless amalgam of everything there is to love about and in pop music.
I’m sure Paramore is aware that there will always be people clamoring for Riot Pt. 2, and whereas on albums past they might have been more inclined to give it to them, at least for a song or two (See “Part II” from the self-titled), there seems a willful desire to move past that sort of, excuse the reference, rose-colored hindsight. If you forget everything you thought you knew about Paramore and go in with fresh ears, you will be treated with one of the very best pop records of the moment and one of the most impactful listens in recent memory. So put on your best pair of headphones, or take this in your car and drive around, and, to paraphrase the words of “Pool,” dive right back in.