From the outset of Hayley Williams’ career as lead singer of pop-punk outfit Paramore, she has frequently been positioned, against her will, as a woman among men and a woman against other women. This narrative, most viciously propagated by former guitarist Josh Farro upon his acrimonious departure from the band in 2010, has long been the albatross around Williams’ neck, impeding her ability to put forward a case for her viability as an individual creative force. Her first solo offering, Petals for Armor, is the full fruition of efforts made in recent years to reposition herself not in opposition to other women in music, but as an integral part of a wider conversation among female artists. As Williams assuredly asserts on early highlight “Cinnamon,” “home is where I am feminine.”
Running through all the tracks of Petals for Armor is a sense of sturdy self-possession from Williams. Taking the dominant role in the lyrical, vocal and instrumental composition of the album, she asserts herself as a leading creative force as opposed to a talented mouthpiece for male collaborators. As a composer, she wears her influences proudly on her sleeve, colouring the familiar Paramore power-pop palette with a wide array of new sonic shades. Opening salvo “Simmer” is carried along by an electronic thrum and a fidgety rhythm — a moody, mid-tempo shot across the bow that nods towards the likes of PJ Harvey or Nadine Shah. Throughout the album, Williams takes cue from a spinning rolodex of legacy names and contemporary acts. Björk can be heard in the shapeless howl that comprises the hook of the aforementioned “Cinnamon” and the industrial stomp and soaring wail of “Sudden Desire”; the playful buoyancy of “Dead Horse” points to the melancholy mischief of No Doubt, while backing vocals from emergent talents Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers on “Roses/Lotus/Violent/Iris” belie an ethereal, collaborative spirit. Williams makes no secret that she is listening to other women, absorbing their wisdom and transmitting her response with grace.
That openness falls in step with an increased vulnerability from the songwriter. Emerging from her own experiences with depression and self-doubt, the dynamic poeticism of Williams’ lyrics is underpinned by an astonishing frankness about her own inner tumult — “Sorry, I was in a depression, I’m trying to come out of it now,” she offers in the spoken intro to “Dead Horse.” “I was the other woman first,” she laments in a generous reflection on the beginning and end of her relationship with New Found Glory guitarist Chad Gilbert that does not accuse nor condemn on “Dead Horse.” Endeavouring to represent the fullness and nuance of her personality, she delves into previously-unseen facets such as in the overt explorations and gristly mystery of sexuality on “Sudden Desire” (“I wanna feel his hand go down”) or the lyrically unambiguous and direct romanticism of “Taken.”
Sonically, Petals for Armor is consistently darker and deeper than the sound that typifies Williams’ day job in Paramore, and certainly more diverse. Slinky R&B flavourings give way to a swirling Radiohead-indebted hook on “Leave It Alone,” while a bass-driven pop-punk rush gives way to Kraftwerk-y electronica that is overtaken by an unashamedly 80s-pop chorus on “Over Yet.” Some of these developments feel inevitable and in step with Williams’ back catalogue, while others are deliriously unexpected and experimental by her previous standards. “Sugar on the Rim” is a late-album delight, with its unabashed EDM propulsion tapping into a camp, clubby euphoria, while the demonesque vocal manipulations and incantation-like chants on “Creepin'” indulge a gothic sensibility.
Although Petals for Armor continually returns to a well of torment and reflection, there is a sense of reinvigorated purpose and direction at play in both Williams’ words and her aesthetic choices. On “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris,” she establishes a recurring floral theme of growth and renewal, singing of “wilted women” and urging the listener to “watch me bloom.” This optimistic bent rears its head increasingly as the album moves into its latter stretch, not least on penultimate track “Watch Me While I Bloom” which makes concrete the album’s mission in the singer’s declaration that “you only got one side of me / here’s something new.” Key to this assertion is the subtle recalibration of Williams’ defining soprano voice. Possessing a considerable set of pipes, the singer’s vocal signature has long been in its ability to soar over stadium-filling pop-punk anthems, but Petals for Armor sees Williams diversifying her repertoire with added layers of nuance and modulation. There’s more space for quiet and contemplation in the laidback tones of “Why We Ever” and whispers or spoken word populate much of the space between the album’s catchier moments. Her signature “big” voice is rarely put to use — and when it is, the results are surprising.
Running to 53 minutes and 15 tracks, Petals for Armor is a touch overlong and certain directionless diversions such as the beachy “Pure Love” or the steady, moody closer “Crystal Clear” feel superfluous to the album’s ultimate mission. As a reflection of Williams’ wide-reaching complexity, though, Petals for Armor is a rich and rewarding offering. In full possession of her authorial voice, Williams draws a line under the toxicity and turbulence that often blighted her time with Paramore without her consent. What comes through here instead is Williams’ agency, humility and vitality as an artist, making a convincing case for her considerable prestige in the annals of 21st century alternative music.
Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a journalist and film writer from Yorkshire in England. Now based in London, he is the biggest Talking Heads fan who still hasn’t seen Stop Making Sense.