As with all great art, Paramore’s new album After Laughter is an expression of real life and real feelings. It reflects what’s been going on in the three band members’ lives, from the personal to the public. We can only guess at what has happened in their personal lives, but a few things we do know for sure. We know that last year frontwoman Hayley Williams married her longtime boyfriend, Chad Gilbert of New Found Glory. At the end of 2015, Paramore’s bassist Jeremy Davis left the band, but in summer 2016, ex-drummer Zac Farro rejoined the band he co-founded.
Hayley has also been open about the depression she has felt in the last couple of years. With the many lineup changes within Paramore, she and guitarist Taylor York had to decide whether to even continue the band. There was a time when she was ready to call it quits, but with Taylor’s support, they persevered.
After Laughter fully and honestly captures a time in our lives where we may feel depression, self-doubt, anxiety, exhaustion, and uncertainty. It’s the kind of record that makes sense for 20-somethings coming to terms with now being adults. But it’s also the kind of record that can apply to people of any age. Those feelings can come up at any time in life, and Hayley deftly describes those emotions and thoughts as you tackle your demons and take another step forward.
Throughout After Laughter, there are two key elements that determine the album’s character. The lyrical themes and mood consistently tell a story of depression, relationships struggles (whether romantic or friendship), and difficulties in staying true to yourself. The lyrics can feel rather down for the most part, but there’s also a sense of overcoming these tribulations and finding answers and peace.
The music, on the other hand, generally suggests a much lighter, happier tone. Think back to Paramore’s self-titled 2013 record. Songs like “Still Into You” and especially “Ain’t It Fun” set the stage for how After Laughter progresses musically. These songs have rhythmic energy, flickering guitars, new wave and funk inspiration, and intricately complex instrumentation. Xylophones and overall cheery music helps offset the darkly honest lyrics. The combination offers hope in the face of hard times. (Pun intended.)
In some ways, the songs can feel overly consistent. There isn’t a lot of variation in musical style or lyrical mood. This is a case where adding two or three tracks – songs with an entirely different mood, tempo, or instrumentation – may have improved the album. The way Paramore offered up a variety of styles and moods, making it feel like a roller coaster. In contrast, After Laughter is more like a merry-go-round. It’s an entirely different ride, which is a surprise in itself, though a ride that’s a bit less dynamic.
This is not to say the album has no variation. Songs like “26” and “Tell Me How” offer up a gentler backdrop that lets the introspective lyrics shine. “No Friend” is perhaps the weirdest, most progressive song Paramore has ever put out. These three songs help prevent the album from feeling too consistent or cohesive. They’re just different enough that they’re refreshing and keep the album running smoothly.
All in all, After Laughter is an impressive, almost conceptual album that describes real life in a way that is honest yet hopeful. It’s a very 1980s new wave pop album, with Hayley’s signature rock screams toned back as a new mood takes center stage. And while it’s different, it’s also worth the listen. Songs like “Fake Happy” and “Caught In The Middle” are the standout cornerstones of the album, while “26” and “Tell Me How” are highlights that add balance and intrigue to After Laughter. Paramore has changed over time – a combination of simply growing up as well as seeing lineup changes – but wouldn’t we expect that? We all have to grow up sometime. Paramore has evolved, and After Laughter is an excellent album that shows courage and confidence.
Track by Track
“Hard Times” – The album starts with its lead single, “Hard Times.” Already it sets the musical tone for After Laughter. It sounds happy and bouncey, a xylophone bringing childlike optimism to a lyrically bleak message. Hayley makes a simple wish to “wake up fine” in the morning, instead of facing the anxiety brought on by a tough life. The new wave ’80s groove masks the mood, but make no mistake. “Hard Times” is an update to Charles Dickens’ novel of the same name. Times are tough, but we’ll survive them.
“Rose-Colored Boy” – The last song written for the album, this is the only song that began with both Zac and Taylor together, before Hayley added words and melody. “Rose-Colored Boy” describes that person in your life who is always happy, looks on the bright side, and wants to cheer you up. But as Hayley explains, we can’t all be like that. She sings, “hearts are breaking, wars are raging,” and that’s reason enough to be down in the dumps. “Rose-Colored Boy” is a highlight on After Laughter.
“Told You So” – Our second taste of the new album before it dropped was also one of the first tracks Taylor wrote. “Told You So” is a chill song with a surprisingly funky, rapidly played guitar in the chorus. Hayley ruminates on being wrong in an argument and facing a sore winner. In the bridge, it’s clear that this is a repeating cycle: “Throw me into the fire, throw me in, pull me out again,” over and over and over. We all make mistakes, but do others have to point it out to us?
“Forgiveness” – The other side of the coin is “Forgiveness”. It starts with guitar and handclaps before Hayley admits that “I cried until I couldn’t cry” and “I don’t pick up when you call”. This is a song that feels calm, yet restrained energy and fury runs just beneath the surface.
“Fake Happy” – “Fake Happy” is one of the best songs on the album. It starts with acoustic guitar, reminiscent of the interludes on Paramore. But 38 seconds into the track, it suddenly shifts into the fun ’80s sound we’ve grown to expect on After Laughter. After describing insincere smiles and pretend pleasantry, the chorus explodes into Hayley’s pleas for honesty. “Oh please don’t ask me how I’ve been, don’t make me play pretend,” she sings in the most rock vocals we’ve heard on the album yet. “Fake Happy” is a song every fan will love.
“26” – Like “Fake Happy,” “26” begins with an acoustic guitar. But this time, the finger-picked guitar runs throughout the song, joined only by a string quartet. Daniel James, a friend of the band, did the string arrangement. Hayley sings about someone bringing her down and her own prior insistence on keeping her feet on the ground. In the chorus, she advises to “hold onto hope if you got it,” recalling “Last Hope” from the previous record. “26” finds Hayley trying to remind herself of happiness. It’s gentle, like a lullaby, and a highlight on After Laughter.
“Pool” – “Pool” was an older song idea Taylor had that Zac helped finish. The song opens with sounds like wind chimes, but then drums and guitar stabs come in and take it back into the ’80s direction. Hayley admits “no one breaks my heart like you” in the verses before getting into a dreamy chorus. It’s a love song of sorts, but one where the lovers involved don’t always bring each other happiness.
“Grudges” – Zac brought this song to the band and Taylor helped finish it. Fans probably guessed, and Hayley confirmed, that she wrote “Grudges” about Zac. After the falling out they had in 2010, this song is about recovering the friendship that fell through so long ago. She wonders “are you recounting all my faults?” and “could it be that I’ve changed?”. But in the end, Hayley decides that “we can’t keep holding onto grudges,” it’s time to start again. Coming full circle, she says that “we’ll laugh ’til we cry like we did when we were kids”. It’s a heartwarming song about rebuilding a broken friendship.
“Caught In The Middle” – This is the first song Paramore recorded for the album, and also among the best. It was originally more rock sounding, but when they got to Los Angeles they made some changes to the music so it’d fit the album better. However, they kept Hayley’s more “yelly” rock vocals. The first lines are instantly relatable: “I can’t think of getting old, it only makes me want to die / I can’t think of who I was, it only makes me want to cry / Can’t look back, can’t look too far ahead”. “Caught In The Middle” is a grooving, bouncey song that feels like a carefree cartwheel despite the troubled lyrics. It’s a standout, in part due to this line: “I don’t need no help, I can sabotage me by myself.”
“Idle Worship” – One of the more aggressive, angry sounding songs is “Idle Worship,” a play on words. We all need an idol, but no one is bulletproof. Whether you look up to your mom or idolize a band, they’re bound to let you down at some point, or change over time. No one is perfect and nothing is fixed. Hayley said this song is about faith being her one constant.
“No Friend” – No song on After Laughter will surprise you more than “No Friend,” featuring Aaron Weiss from mewithoutYou. It starts with progressive sounding music, Aaron murmuring in the background about who knows what. His talking/singing is buried in the mix of the song, only coming to the front as the song reaches its end. “No Friend” feels like a long interlude, confusing yet somehow important. You’ll have to listen closely to figure out what Aaron is saying. This is the only song Hayley doesn’t sing on.
“Tell Me How” – After Laughter ends with a beautiful piano ballad. But “Tell Me How” is not your typical piano ballad; it adds oddly cheery percussion under the chorus, giving the song a hopeful, almost tropical vibe between verses. It also has some of the best lyrics on the album. “I can’t call you a stranger, but I can’t call” is an early line, though the best comes later: “Of all the weapons you fight with, your silence is the most violent”. Hayley’s vocals are gentle, the song is tender, yet the beat brings the hoped-for resolution. “Tell Me How” is the perfect way to end the album.
Highlights on After Laughter include “Fake Happy,” “26,” “Caught In The Middle,” and “Tell Me How.”
- Review: Alicia Keys Offers Best Album in a Decade with ‘ALICIA’ - September 18, 2020
- Review: Sara Bareilles Offers ‘More Love’ in ‘Little Voice’ Concept Album - September 4, 2020
- Hayley Williams Takes Listener on Emotional Journey on ‘Petals For Armor’ - May 8, 2020