Photo Credit: Lindsey Byrnes
Young industry veterans like Hayley Williams don’t always possess the vision or the wherewithal to make successful mid-career pivots, let alone have the actual energy to really make it all stick. Forgive yourself if you forgot Williams’ role as a central fixture of the pop-punk landscape, or that she’s played this role more than half her life – she was signed by 14-years-old, releasing records at 16-years-old and began touring the world at 20-years-old. Petals For Armor, released May 8 through Atlantic Records, sees her opening her eyes to look in the mirror for what feels like the very first time.
The record, previewed in two five-song EPs released earlier in the year, is Williams’ official debut LP as a solo artist and feels fresh and comfortable in equal helpings, thanks to its creation alongside her Paramore bandmates including guitarist Taylor York, who executive-produced the project. In the longstanding tradition of inwardly reflective and personal projects, Williams assembled Petals For Armor like a collection of diary entries that create a reflection of her own past, or at least the one she envisions.
While promoting the record, Williams revealed that her writing process began in the car on long, aimless driving trips that spawned thoughts consumed with anger. The anger was collective, filled with “we’re-all-in-this-together” generalities, and it eventually shrank to a more insular view focused on personal pain. “Rage” is the first word uttered on album-opener “Simmer”, an agitated and crackling Shirley Manson-esque introspection on controlling a temper replete with flourishes like vocal yips and heavy breathing. The messy details throughout the track amount to some of the most appreciable moments in the entire record; the push/pull metric of “control” as a concept balance the taught, sparse instrumental with all of that inhaling and exhaling, painting a picture of anxiety, or the feeling that comes knocking when there isn’t enough in control.
Traces of songwriting influences saturate Petals For Armor, like Regina Spektor (“Cinnamon”) and Madonna (“Sugar On The Rim”), but everything retains the integrity of feeling like it belongs to Hayley Williams (or sometimes Paramore). The diversity gives away how much fun Williams likely had in making this record despite the pain she forced herself to recall; a woman gluing together the dirtiest pieces from her own past no doubt looked to troubadours who had walked that path to help her achieve this. It’s smile-inducing to listen to Williams luxuriate in sonic spaces we haven’t heard her in before.
Sarcasm and humor are two expressions that this fifteen-track record is fairly unconcerned with – any lighthearted moments are fleeting, and the most elated feelings are felt while searching for love or understanding that love can sometimes be good. “Sugar On The Rim” and “Watch Me While I Bloom” reach toward being truly emotive but stand just on the cusp, and we never quite reach an exclamation of the most intense and fiery peaks in all these feelings, settling for the slopes where all the questions lie. Boy, does Hayley Williams love questions, too; several songs are sticky with the languor of existential dilemmas, from the rage central to “Simmer” to the loss pervading “Leave It Alone” to betrayal in “Dead Horse”. They attest to her passion for getting to the heart of the problems she’s facing and ensure that she’ll have material to write about in the years to come.
“Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris” is a beautifully constructed backbone that features boygenius on backing vocals – a supergroup with members Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridgers, and Julien Baker. Mentions of petals and flowers permeate nearly every song in support of the record’s title, and here they inhabit different women in bids to express individuality and be appreciated collectively in a garden. No need for envy because no one’s concerned; just build each other up. Donning Petals For Armor isn’t about winning the war, they won’t protect in a physical onslaught. Instead, they exist as a reminder of what has been overcome already. Words are the weapons and bad memories are battle scars. Petals are growth and healing. Petals For Armor shield the wearer from nothing, because there isn’t a need.