Paramore are a new band—again. With their fifth line-up change in as many albums, they have lost bassist Jeremy Davis and restored founding drummer Zac Farro to their internal dynamic. The successive shift in sound is, fittingly, a rhythmic one. Guitars, synths, and drums all share the traits of percussion; together they feel like a series of incredulous blinks fluttering across the songs on After Laughter, their first record in four years. The steel drums that introduce the opening track and lead single “Hard Times” merge with an identical guitar line to form a pattern of pulsing, primary colors. It’s the band’s brightest, most animated album. The sound is crisp, every layer discernible, lacking the blurs and reverberations that constitute traditional rock production and instead drawing from the rhythmic separations that characterize ‘80s pop and freestyle.
As much as this approach could be credited to Farro, whose drums alternately prop the songs up at acute angles or melt into dense fills, much of the initial groundwork was laid by guitarist Taylor York on their previous, self-titled 2013 album, where he became one of the band’s primary songwriters. After founding guitarist Josh Farro departed in 2009, York’s songwriting revised Paramore as a pop-rock band more about texture than riffage. His guitar parts feel like fractions drawn from broader rock compositions, loose pieces for which there is no original puzzle. Consider the guitar line from that self-titled album’s hit single “Still Into You,” which climbs in perpendicular fits throughout the song. Its qualities are both percussive and vocal, so that singer Hayley Williams, instead of shouting over a flood of guitars, is responding to and weaving her way around the overlapping rhythms. What other bands would consider peripheral details and embellishments are central to York’s compositions.
On After Laughter, York’s guitar work seems newly descended from Lindsey Buckingham, another guitarist who builds entire songs out of flourishes. He etches precise arabesques all over “Told You So” and “Forgiveness,” giving the songs an elusive, mercurial shape reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night. “Forgiveness” in particular is one of the band’s best songs, their gentlest and most buoyant kiss-off, floating somewhere above the resentment and sadness it conveys. “You want forgiveness,” Williams sings, York’s guitars encasing her voice in a kind of cosmic shimmer, “but I just can’t do it.” “Musically that’s the world I envision myself living in as a person,” Williams told Zane Lowe last month, describing After Laughter’s vivid soundworld. “It’s a fun one…and I feel like a lot of people want to feel like that.”
Nonetheless, the border between old emo Paramore and new pop Paramore is more porous on this album than its initial singles suggest. The verses to “Fake Happy” share the glowing surface vibration of “Hard Times” and “Told You So,” but the song’s chorus opens up a wormhole in the record, through which the band step and emerge sounding uncannily like the one that made 2009’s Brand New Eyes. The next song, “26,” feels, in its arrangement, like a sequel to Brand New Eyes’ “Misguided Ghosts,” Williams’ voice accompanied only by an acoustic guitar and a string section, attached and anxiously reacting to the song like an external nervous system. “After all wasn’t I the one who said / to keep your feet on the ground,” she sings, responding to an earlier version of herself, who sang “keep your feet on the ground / when your head’s in the clouds” on Brand New Eyes’ “Brick by Boring Brick.”
Throughout After Laughter, Williams acts as a kind of antagonist. She’s at odds with the texture of the record, singing from a counterpoint so dark that it seems to open a purgatorial vacuum at the album’s center. “Caught in the Middle,” which appears in the second half, is the heart of the record. Williams sings “I don’t need no help / I can sabotage me by myself” with such a profound disconnection between the surface gloss of the song and its despondent core that listening to it feels like slipping in between two emotional poles. “He said my eyes are getting too dark now / Boy, you ain’t ever seen my mind,” she sings over the Tom Tom Club-esque syncopation of “Rose Colored Boy,” and even as Williams’ delivery is animated and flexible—her singing refreshing on contemporary pop and rock radio for the precision of its tone—the lyrics convey the interminable depths of anxiety, depression, and exhaustion. When combined with the ecstatic surroundings built up by York and Farro, the record seems to embody the kind of lucid mania that characterizes a nervous breakdown.
The darkness of Williams’ perspective builds throughout the record, and on “Idle Worship” it reaches a breaking point that’s disturbingly literal—as she sings the verses (“Remember how / we used to like ourselves?”) the substance of her voice breaks apart. On the following track “No Friend,” Williams cedes the album’s bleakest moment to mewithoutYou’s Aaron Weiss, who delivers a spoken word monologue over York and Farro’s dark inversions of the “Idle Worship” riff. Weiss’ lyrics add metrical detail to the sentiments of “Idle Worship,” a song about interpersonal expectations, and the vast distance between one’s self-conception and the idea of oneself that exists in the minds of others: “So throw your pedestal of stone in the forgetful sea,” Weiss says, “as protection from the paper-thin perfection you project on me.” At this point, the album hits a precipice, and the closer, “Tell Me How,” feels like someone sifting through the wreckage of a disaster. “I know you think that I erased you,” Williams sings. “I know you hate me but I can’t hate you.” For most of the song, only a piano shudders beneath her vocal, but eventually York’s guitar and Farro’s drums enter and quietly contribute detail to the song, merging like waves brushing against the jagged surface of a cliffside.
After Laughter isn’t quite as impressive the band’s self-titled record, which exploded the idea of Paramore as a rock band and allowed them, by exploring every shade and nuance of their identity, to become unmistakably themselves. Anything narrower, if not necessarily in sound then in scope, would inevitably shrink next to it. But After Laughter has its own, distinct identity. Previous Paramore albums described the perils of heartache, growing up, and survival; the songs on After Laughter are almost exclusively about survival, seeming to pick up a thread from their self-titled album and its focus on rebuilding one’s life and one’s band. After Laughter, however, observes a different aspect of the subject of survival: the emptiness and pointlessness, and how often it fails to alter the indifferent universe that surrounds and requires it.