Photo Credit: Lindsey Byrnes
Paramore vocalist Hayley Williams made her solo debut last year with the release Petals for Armor. The title was far from the most clever or endearing thing about it, as the singer explored a variety of styles ranging from dance pop to smooth jazz, while overall making the album feel classically raw even while being the very unmistakable result of profoundly slick production. Now, less than nine months later, Williams both continues – and expands upon this direction on her new album, FLOWERS for VASES/descansos. This time around, she also evokes a number of all-time essential female singer-songwriters, including Joni Mitchell and Janis Ian. However, the end result is all Hayley Williams, quite literally: she plays all the instruments and wrote one hundred percent of the material.
Opening track “First Thing to Go” sets the stage for much of what’s to follow very nicely as a tight and raw acoustic ballad backed by that same very modern-sounding production which propelled her previous album. Appropriately-titled “Inordinately” is possibly the record’s most stripped-down song – both musically and emotionally, as the acoustic number echoes not only the aforementioned Joni Mitchell but might even recall some of John Lennon’s early solo work. The arpeggiated folk guitar on “Wait On” doesn’t wait long to remind listeners of Fleetwood Mac’s endlessly re-imagined “Landslide.”
While the deceptively “quieter” sound does dominate the album, Williams has not completely abandoned her roots as a rocker, although she does largely filter them through this new singer-songwriter vibe, as suggested by the uptempo but thematically dark “My Limb” (“If you gotta amputate // Don’t give me the tourniquet… // If your part of me is gone now // Do I wanna survive?”). The song’s words also repeat its title fifty-two times, a testimony to its own underlying and welcome simplicity. Williams also pulls not a single lyrical punch in another acoustic ballad, “Good Grief”, which depicts more real physical and emotional issues in terms that are no less graphic (“Haven’t eaten in three weeks // Skin and bones when you’re not near me // I’m all skeleton and melody”).
A bit less heavy-handed are songs like “Over Those Hills”, which overall sounds like early Sheryl Crow and also finds its way to a compelling instrumental break, which suggests the War on Drugs and other more current bands. Of the album’s fourteen tracks only piano-heavy “KYRH” (a needless abbreviating of “Keep You Right Here”) comes off as just a bit droning, while mid-tempo instrumental “Descansos” is the very definition of filler. By contrast, “No Use I Just Do” (full lyric: “It’s no use I just love you”) makes possibly the best use of piano on the album on a track that definitely invokes the more current work of Lana Del Rey.
Even though her previous solo release went Top 20 in the US (not to mention Top 5 in UK), as of this writing this one, released February 5th, has yet to chart at all (although it was put out as a “surprise release,” an industry practice which clearly needs to be used sparingly). Anyone put off by the record’s ambiguous title (and ridiculously superfluous capitalization) should certainly not be. Tight, sincere, engaging, as well as both pleasant and haunting in exactly the right amounts, FLOWERS for VASES/descansos is one of the best albums of the year thus far and will unquestionably finish out 2021 as one of the best overall.