Four years later, Paramore is back, down one of those friends and up another, who, ironically enough, left the band amidst the strife that inspired those lyrics in the first place. Vocalist Hayley Williams, guitarist Taylor York and new/old drummer Zac Farro are past their awkward stage, settling into Paramore’s adulthood. On After Laughter, Paramore buries its pop-punk tendencies completely, in favor of slick, sun-kissed alternative pop songs that would sound at home next to “Shape of You” and “Passionfruit” on Top 40 radio, but really have more to do with early ‘80s new wave -- and all the campiness and occasional experimentalism that comes with it.
It’s a sonic adulthood that finds the band increasingly laid back, self-aware, maybe even sarcastic: Life doesn’t make sense, so why force yourself to? Name your album something that sounds like the track list of OK Computer. Introduce it with a banger of a single (and a visual aesthetic) reminiscent of the band Radiohead got its name from. Toss in acoustic ballads, proficient plays at alternative radio and a curiosuly enigmatic spoken word rock song that sounds like nothing else in your discography. You’re bound to lose some of your old friends; might as well ditch those who were holding you back all along.
Through the intrigue and the ambiguity, there are stark realities. Fans who got all “WHERE MY ROCK AT?” when “Ain’t It Fun” broke big are likely to be lost for good. Paramore still scans as a rock band in that its songs are driven by guitar, but gone are the straightforward rockers, the “Now”’s and “Ignorance”’s, built around dual-electric assault. Their new sweet spot covers bass-groovy, synth-addled -- dare we say tropical -- pop pep rallies that range from humid, Tango in the Night-era Fleetwood Mac (“Forgiveness”) to absolutely aqueous new wave (“Pool”) that bathes Williams’ voice in crystalline distortion. There’s a point in the bridge of “Told You So” where it feels like it might lunge into “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” euphoria. It doesn’t, but hey.
Lyrically, let's jut say opening with a song called "Hard Times" is an accurate forecast. Williams sings about the act of crying on no less than five songs, and there are numerous moments -- particularly a song straight-up-titled "Grudges" -- where she could be addressing the unfriendly exit and subsequent legal entanglements of former bassist Jeremy Davis. A certain version of the unfiltered angst we've been familiar with since the first verse of "Misery Business" still endures, but it's an older, wiser and world-wearier -- though thankfully less specific -- version of it, the kind one tends to develop once they actually have been living in the real word and have seen some shit, enough to realize that everyone else has, too. Listening to After Laughter, one could project the source of Williams’ tears onto Davis, her friends, her family, or their own friends and their own family. Knowing the crowd-pleaser Williams is, that’s probably the point.
Like Paramore before it, After Laughter was produced by York, along with Justin Meldal-Johnsen, an alt-pop aficionado whose production on the last two M83 albums feels especially relevant here. “Midnight City” was a synthpop song that could hang on alternative radio, while conversely, Paramore’s morphed into a rock band equipped to elbow its way into Top 40’s beat-driven ecosystem. They’ve been especially transparent about finding influence in Tame Impala, one of 2017’s most pop-approved rock bands. You can hear it all over After Laughter especially in the bass -- an instrument typically buried in the mix of Paramore songs -- stretching its legs and going for strolls across tracks like “Hard Times” and “Idle Worship,” played across the record by Meldal-Johnsen.
It’s not all blue skies and poptimism, though. “No Friend,” the penultimate track, is easily the strangest song that’s ever made it to a Paramore album. It guest stars Aaron Weiss, longtime leader of indie rock’s resident world religion scholars mewithoutYou (and one of Williams’ favorite bands), dictating frenzied, near-apocalyptic slam poetry over a skittering rock groove. At first his words are barely audible; by song’s end, he’s near-soloing about holding onto a coat in the middle of a river, beneath a waterfall, a friend yelling back to him. Seconds later, the LP is ending with the tender piano ballad “Tell Me How;” it’s as if the oddball’s merit is less in whether it actually works, more in how it made you double back to make sure you were still listening to the right album -- a useful snap-to-attention, considering that After Laughter's momentum sporadically stalls on its second side.
In a way, After Laughter won over the masses long before the public got the chance to sort out its deep cuts. Since the surprise success of Paramore, the band’s enjoyed a mainstream and critical acceptance that’s eluded just about everyone else on the 2005 Warped Tour circuit. This 2017 album cycle led off with a profile in the Sunday New York Times and news coverage on Pitchfork, things that absolutely would not have happened a decade ago, when the band was every bit as mainstream-popular. “Hard Times” was met with open arms by critics, which, aside from being an excellent song, marks a paradigm shift in the way Paramore’s been received. 2007’s Riot! was certified Platinum a year after its release but largely ignored or flat out rejected by the mainstream tastemakers of the day.
So what’s changed? Have old school fans simply grown up and gotten more of a voice? Have people warmed towards Paramore’s dropping of the mall emo look? Are we more cognizant of the debilitating lack of women in most popular genres? Are there just precious few popular rock bands to champion these days? Whatever the world is thinking, Paramore has held up its end of the bargain. "Hard Times," "Told You So," and several other potential singles (what up, "Forgiveness") at least appear ready to occupy whatever's left of a sweet spot for forward-thinking guitar music on pop radio. On the album after their grown-up album, their unique band identity finally emerges stronger than any particular movement, ready to pivot in numerous future destinations on the rock/pop compass. Someone's going to have to teach the kids that maturity doesn't have to be a drag.