Petals For Armor, the debut solo album from Paramore’s Hayley Williams, proves to be an odd album to review. Not so much for its content, which we’ll get to shortly, but simply because of the way it’s been released. The album itself is 15 tracks long, and before its May 8th release date, 10 of those tracks have already been released into the world on the EPs Petals For Armor I and Petals For Armor II, the first containing the album’s opening 5 songs, the second containing the middle 5. Of course, if you’re reading this review then you probably already knew that. It’s unusual to be reviewing an album from which two thirds of the tracklist is already widely available, which listeners have likely already listened to and made their minds up about. Equally, however, it means that this review will be, in effect, 2 combined reviews; the first being about the final 5 tracks, which combine to create the third and final EP of the album, Petals For Armor III; the second being about the album and its combined 15 tracks as a whole. Luckily, it’s easy to give a combined answer in regards to whether these 2 separate-but-not-really collections of music are good – it’s a resounding YES!
Let’s start with the album as a whole. There will be a lot of people who instinctively compare this to Paramore, which would be unfair to do. These songs and this music, even though written and performed by Hayley with several guest spots from the members of Paramore, is a prospect that Paramore’s music has never really touched before (Incidentally, the closest Paramore album to this would be After Laughter, but only then because it is the most ‘Pop’ of their catalogue. The comparisons end there, for the most part). It almost feels right to ignore the fact that Hayley is in Paramore completely when listening to this album, and to look at her in the way she’s intending to come across – alone, bearing her soul and her own demons for all to see. To that end, it’s probably obvious to say that this is a much more ‘grown up’ affair. Musically and lyrically, PFA feels like Hayley coming out of a shell that we didn’t even know she was hiding in – at the beginning of the album, she’s ready to stop hiding her demons from the world and even herself, and is ready to take them on and begin the healing process. Come the end of PFA’s 56-minute runtime, it’s fair to say she’s made a good deal of progress in doing so.
The first 2 EPs feel, for the most part, like a more diluted listen. Hayley’s voice is much more restrained and calmer than you’d usually expect – even airy at times. First Single Simmer deals with its rage/anger based subject matter in such a manner, and yet you can feel the venom in the lyric delivery – especially considering Hayley drops her first F-bomb on record for it. Even songs you’d expect to be a little more upbeat find themselves in this more subdued territory, such as the song My Friend – a song about a strong friendship and the hardships that friend has stood by her through. Hayley herself sounds great across the board on these songs, at this stage in her career the control she has over her voice should be a surprise to no one. Neither should it be a surprise that some of her best vocal performances to date come on this album, for example in the delicate Leave It Alone, where she wears her influence truly on her sleeve and channels her inner Thom Yorke.
There are moments, such as in Sudden Desire where she really lets herself wail, and it stands out all the more for it amongst the songs that surround it. Cinnamon is a song about loneliness that starts delightfully disjointed – arguably even antagonistically towards the listener – before building as the song continues up towards its ‘I’m not lonely babe, I am free’ crescendo, perhaps mirroring the initial realisation of the problem before reaching the enlightenment of a different viewpoint for it. Other upbeat moments amongst the calm include Over Yet, which features arguably the best chorus of 2020 so far; and Dead Horse, which is a song so good it should make many stars of Pop radio quake in their boots at least a little.
EP3, whilst very intrinsically linked to the first 2, feels like a very different beast. In this reviewer’s opinion, it’s the best of the 3, and as such the album ends on an exemplary string of 5 tracks. This is where Hayley steps out from the subdued and restrained nature that permeated the majority of the first 10 tracks of the album, and steps into true Pop-Queen territory. This is the part of the album that will be completely new to everyone, and it was more than worth the wait. There are songs here that would sit comfortably alongside the likes of Bjork and late 80’s-era Madonna – in fact there are even a couple of moments that you could definitely imagine being sung by Michael Jackson and sitting alongside his greatest hits! Lyrically, the tone changes along with the music in this final third too, with songs now dealing with getting better and blooming following your darker times – similar to the way Cinnamon seemingly builds to realisation, the album does so too! The theme of this final third seems to be not being fixed, but being comfortable in the knowledge that you’re getting there.
The absolute highlight of the album, for this reviewer at least, comes in this final section. Sugar On The Rim is another one of those songs that builds into its brilliance. If you were expecting a song like this to be released by Hayley, then frankly you’re probably lying to yourself. In truth, this is a song that might end up falling flat for some people, but for those who fully get on board with it, it would be no surprise to see it on end-of-year lists come December (might go out on a limb and say maybe even end-of-decade lists for certain people).
In a year in which we can still expect releases from Lady Gaga and Haim, this will definitely stand its ground. If you’re a Paramore fan, it’s likely a given but you should definitely get something out of Petals For Armor. If you just like really good Pop/Indie-Pop music, this will also suit you perfectly. Whilst not every song on the album necessarily reaches the same heights as its standout moments, each song is at the very least good and each song earns its place in the tracklist. Even more than that though, it works both as an album AND as a trilogy of EPs, which is quite mad. If Petals For Armor isn’t on a whole bunch of ‘Best Of’ lists come the end of 2020, then we’ve either gone completely bonkers or we’ve got a truly exceptional 7 months of music ahead of us. The latter is much less likely, to be honest.
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