In the wake of numerous legal troubles and lineup reshuffling that saw the return of drummer Zac Farro, Paramore comes together once again to deliver their fifth studio album and first since 2013’s self-titled effort. On After Laughter, they expand upon the slight pop edge that tinged their self-titled work, deviating from the punk rock that characterized their early beginnings. The change is understandable – it’s easy to forget how long Paramore have been going. Frontwoman Hayley Williams is nearing her 30s and can’t be expected to write songs about teenage angst anymore, and the current musical landscape has slowly begun to phase out their previous style.
Working with the same personnel as before, Paramore masterfully adapts to this new sound, while maintaining many of the aspects that fans came to love the band for. After Laughter contains some deceptively despondent lyrics amid the sunny melodies, both sides colliding into what might be the band’s most fully realized album yet.
The production value of this album is top-notch, done entirely by guitarist Taylor York and Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who is responsible for 2013’s album as well as some great projects by Young The Giant, Tegan & Sara and M83. The combination of Paramore’s guitar hooks with the bubbly synth pop of the 80s comes together to make some powerful and intricate instrumentals, building up to huge climaxes when necessary to accompany Williams’ vocal power. This particular musical niche is a running theme for most of the album, but clear deviations in style still exist – “26” is a lower-key acoustic ballad, while “Caught In The Middle” has an almost reggae flavour, for example.
“Hard Times” is the perfect culmination of all the things they were aiming for on this project, and was a great choice for a first single – it is truly one of the best songs of the year. The albums opens with a steel drum instrumental and mimicking guitar pattern, capturing the spirit of 80s pop but keeping the presence of real instruments evident. The guitar part during the verses is catchy enough to be termed a hook on its own, before the song builds up into a triumphant power pop chorus, complete with harmonies that come in at just the right time. The sugar rush of the song is almost enough to make you forget that it’s about depression. Smiling through the pain is a common lyrical theme here.
“Fake Happy” is another track that shows this, as well as being the most dynamic and musically exciting track here. The song opens with a lo-fi recording of Williams sounding absolutely hopeless, before picking up immediately with some Caribbean-sounding synths that bring to mind the most bubblegum of pop tracks – it sounds somewhat like Katy Perry’s “Chained To The Rhythm”. The conflict of emotions as Williams puts on a fake smile is symbolised by these musical themes, ultimately exploding into the chorus where things shift again. The heaviest guitars on the whole project chime in to back up Williams’ cynical observations, asking people to realize they are just as fake as she can be. By the time a four-part harmony of “ba-da-ba”s closes the song out, we’ve gone on a complete musical journey.
Hayley Williams has always had one of the most dynamic and effortless deliveries in her genre, and it works just as well delivering catchy hooks. Her full belt is obviously very impressive, but the few times she chooses to dip into her lower register can give me the chills. One of the greatest things Williams does with her vocals is turning up the intensity even if it doesn’t mean turning up the volume – at a crucial moment in “Rose-Colored Boy” she drops down to a quieter low harmony that surprises the listener with how unexpectedly well it fits with the background. The chorus of “Pool” comes to mind here as well.
Since the sound of the album is so uniform, the weaker tracks are easier to pick out – the arrangement of the guitar and drum patterns with Williams’ snappy hook in “Told You So” still hasn’t really clicked properly with me, while the first half of the album stands out as clearly stronger. These songs are all still pretty great, but when songs like “Hard Times” and “Fake Happy” exist in basically the same niche it is easy to see them beginning to run out of steam by the album’s end. “No Friend” is the only deviation from the sonic palette of the album, continuing the band’s trend of placing a heavier, grunge-influenced song at the end of their albums. In such a perfectly realized work, however, the complete 180 in sound and the awkward spoken word vocals from mewithoutYou frontman Aaron Weiss have no place here and stand out as a confusing choice.
Paramore have gone through many changes as a band, in terms of their personnel and their sound, but always seem to come out on the other end with a project that perfectly captures the musical moment they are writing in as well as their own personal situations. No matter what they sound like, the consistency and resilience of the band for the last 12 years is something to marvel at.
Favourite Tracks: Hard Times, Fake Happy, Rose-Colored Boy, Forgiveness, Pool
Least Favourite Track: No Friend