- SPIN Rating:8 of 10
Label: Fueled by Ramen
"Misery Business," Paramore's highest-charting hit, was an odd thing — a song that spent half its time gloating and the other half apologizing. The crowning hook, after the narrator has won a boy from her rival, goes, "Oh, I never meant to brag / But God, it just feels so good." The "but" there is the most important thing about Paramore, aside from the way singer Hayley Williams inflates herself with joy on the words "so good." Few bands get such a rush from self-doubt — not the social or sexual insecurity that's been rock's fertilizer from the beginning, but real original-sin-style doubt, doubt about whether you are even an okay person. Williams sings about boyfriend-stealing and the "skeleton in me" and has one-sided conversations with people we can't hear who think her band's personal problems are her fault. Sometimes onstage she wears a shirt she designed that says, "BEWARE OF YOU."
But there are ways to make fear sound like joy. Paramore's medium is jumpy, harshly sweet pop-punk, a style made for the anthem, the tantrum, the chiming ballad. So the possibility that you and Williams are both selfish animals merely playing at civilization can sound, respectively, like something to be triumphantly resisted ("Monster") or furiously denied ("Playing God") or tenderly apologized for ("Hate to See Your Heart Break"). Whichever way you're taking your lowliness, it feels like uplift, which is why no matter how tastefully they conceal it, these guys are still a Christian band. When Zac and Josh Farro, the band's longtime drummer and guitarist, respectively, first threatened to leave in 2009, the still-intact group made an album to celebrate its intactness. Brand New Eyes was a gorgeous, sugary, half-dark monument to the healing power of being a rock star: furious resentments first made catchy and then swept away by odes to playing, touring, loving, being loved, etc.. This was Paramore's answer to mortal inadequacy and sin: being a rock band.
Then the Farros left after all. Which was a shame, in particular because it meant the loss in Zac of a good, knotty, assertive drummer, whose forward tumble was important in keeping focused a band whose dangerously qualified singer could be a distraction. But the most obvious effect of the split is that while the last Paramore record was all about the joy of being in a band that came close to losing half of itself, but didn't, the new Paramore record has to be about the joy of being in a band that lost half of itself, and good riddance. (They're now billed as a trio, filled out by guitarist Taylor York and bassist Jeremy Davis.) An hour long, with multiple track titles that start with the word "Interlude" and a song that's a sequel to a chiming ballad from two albums ago, Paramore is an ambitious album by necessity: It's the test that the band still exists.
They do. They don't hurtle like they used to — the meat/potatoes punk-pop on the album's first third is stiffer than it was, and that sequel, "Part II," is goopier than its predecessor — but Williams doesn't need to be kept focused anymore. Atlantic signed her at 14 as a girl with exploitable pipes and some energy; at 24, fronting the rock band she insisted on, she's a storm, a huge, canny, and generous presence, and her gravity gathers the smaller band into a tighter orbit at just the moment they feel like they have to do something expansive. Thus the Paramore of Paramore are both broader and more centered. They try out new-wave inflections both stompy ("Fast in My Car") and bouncy ("Ain't It Fun"). They sweeten one song with a gospel choir and sour another with screams of "ANKLEBITERS!" They pause for minute-long acoustic ditties about the almost-breakup, and unload an eight-minute "Only in Dreams"-style closer on which Williams sings, "I'm writing the future / I'm writing it out loud" like she's Beyoncé in that clip where she's weeping about her power.
Part of the power here lies in a voice that can still do girl-punk squeak but now relaxes into a scratched drawl, more Tennessee than Warped Tour. Part of it is her lyrics. Williams doesn't have the absolute precision of diction of her friend and re-tweeter Taylor Swift, and her clichés are usually just clichés, instead of reframed or subverted or extremely vivid clichés. (Pain is like a dull knife; the weight of the world is on your shoulders; etc.) But she's intensely open, her feelings are never vague, and she's developing a country singer's knack for the drawled, hooked aphorism, the kind that throws open a door on a scene or a feeling or a whole person.
The harmony-decorated epic of romantic overenthusiasm called "(One of Those) Crazy Girls" opens thus: "Now when you say you wanna slow down / Does it mean you wanna slow dance?" In "Proof," which feints elegantly at being about a boy but is probably about God, she admits, at the sweetest spot of a giddy pop-punk chorus, that she should believe that she's loved: "If I'm a woman with no fear / Just like I claim I am," conflating love and faith and being a rock star in fewer seconds than anything else in Paramore's extensive catalog of doing exactly that. And in "Fast in My Car," the album itself opens with a post-Farros statement of purpose — "Been through the wringer a couple times / I came out callous and cruel / And all my friends know it very well / Because they went through it too" — which Williams sells as if it were "Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I'm bored and old" itself.
But note that her version mentions her friends. By which she probably means her band. Paramore are good for you because they believe that you have a monster inside you, that rock'n'roll can make you a conduit for love, and that Jesus wanted you to be radically nice to people; all three things are true. This is their longest album and has the highest stakes, and succeeds. Listen to it and see if you don't feel like you have to beware of yourself a little less.