The Week In Pop

Soft Times: On Paramore’s Surprising Retro Reboot

Pity the MySpace-era emo fan — for many reasons, but especially because none of their old heroes are doing it like they used to. Kings of bombast Fall Out Boy started adding cyborg limbs to their sound early on and at this point are more machine than man, having followed their thirst for new extremes all the way to an old Britney Spears chorus and dubstep drops that already sounded outdated when Microsoft got to them five years ago. Fellow syllable-crammers Panic! At The Disco have morphed ceaselessly from one form to the next, most recently resembling the Broadway production about Frank Sinatra that Freddy Mercury never got the chance to write. Gerard Way retired My Chemical Romance to write comic books and a glammy Britpop solo album instead. Even MySpace itself plummeted into irrelevance, only to mount an attempted comeback that’s best left unremembered.

By comparison, Paramore are aging quite gracefully. Having essentially perfected their fiery, melodic arena-punk approach over the course of their first three albums — and acrimoniously shedding brothers Josh and Zac Farro — they broadened their ambitions on 2013’s self-titled LP. Paramore remained cohesive even as the band branched out into country (“Hate To See Your Heart Break”), C86 indie-pop (“Anklebiters”), strummy ukulele campfire balladry (the “Moving On” interlude), dark new wave (“Part II”), and an assortment of other straightforward pop-rock sounds. “Some of us have to grow up sometimes,” Hayley Williams sang, “So, if I have to, I’m gonna leave you behind.” But the album didn’t really betray Paramore’s signature sound; it felt like a natural evolution, faithful to the band’s history without settling into stagnancy. I called it “not a move toward mainstream pop so much as an expansion in all directions.”

That said, it definitely scored Paramore more pop radio exposure than ever before, particularly with “Ain’t It Fun,” which became their first top-10 hit on Billboard’s Hot 100 and even landed them on American Idol. “Ain’t It Fun” was not exactly in step with the reigning trends of its time — other songs in the top 10 at its peak included John Legend’s “All Of Me,” Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” and DJ Snake & Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What” — and it isn’t even necessarily as cheery as its title suggests; the premise is Williams sarcastically ribbing a friend who’s realizing they aren’t the center of the world. But the song’s punchy ’80s throwback beat, neon laser synth melodies, and jubilant gospel choir made it arguably Paramore’s biggest stylistic leap thus far. It was also the song that felt most like a bid for pop stardom, and its unprecedented success left Paramore fans confused about what their next move might sound like.

The answer is, somehow, both a retrenchment of their pop bona fides and a return to the misery business. The latter element is right there in the title of their new album, After Laughter; the former is immediately evident in that album’s sound, a ’70s and ’80s pastiche that surpasses “Ain’t It Fun” as Paramore’s most radical reboot. “Hard Times,” the album’s genuinely surprising lead single and opening track, is indicative: a tightly wound, lightly funky new wave revival replete with gated drums, brisk blasts of processed guitar, and a cartoonishly colorful hook. Williams uses this sprightly backdrop as a venue for extreme pessimism: “All that I want is to wake up fine/ Tell me that I’m alright, that I ain’t gonna die,” she begins, later moving on to visions of rain clouds and rock bottom and wondering why she even tries at all.

The album follows those threads from there, with both “Rose-Colored Boy” and “Told You So” also matching an effervescent synthetic funk palette with a Williams lament about losing hope. “Fake Happy” loosens up a bit into something closer to their last album’s sound as Williams adopts a defensive posture: “Oh please! I bet everybody here is fake happy, too!” The song titles communicate a lot: There is a snappy little synth-pop number called “Grudges” followed by a reggae-inflected Blondie sendup called “Caught In The Middle,” and don’t forget the Tango In The Night-worthy mid-tempo rocker “Forgiveness” (“I can’t give you that,” sings Williams). On “No Friend,” guest Aaron Weiss of mewithoutyou uses snippets of old Paramore lyrics to tell the band’s story over a dark-funk downward spiral befitting Talking Heads’ Fear Of Music.

It’s easy to read your own interpretation into lines like “For all I know/ The best is over and the worst is yet to come.” Is it a comment on the current geopolitical situation? A winking nod to fans who question Paramore’s creative trajectory? But as 28-year-old Williams explained in a New York Times interview last month, the bad vibes stem mostly from a deep depression she suffered last year owing to the realities of adulthood: “You can run on the fumes of being a teenager for as long as you want, but eventually life hits you really hard.”

In that case the acoustic ballad “26,” which takes a page from Williams’ buddy Taylor Swift, could serve as After Laughter’s mission statement: “Reality will break your heart/ Survival will not be the hardest part/ It’s keeping all your hopes alive/ When all the rest of you has died.” It’s one of a handful of quiet moments where Paramore cast off their new aesthetic in favor of barebones emotionalism. One of the others, piano-driven closer “Tell Me How,” addresses head-on some of the aforementioned personal drama: Paramore’s loss of yet another member on bad terms. This time it was founding bassist Jeremy Davis, who argued in court that he deserved to be paid as a creative partner, with cuts of various revenue streams, rather than merely an employee of the band (Williams is technically the only Paramore member signed to Atlantic).

The legal dispute was finally settled last week, but it hung over the process of creating this album, inspiring lyrics like, “I can’t call you a stranger/ But I can’t call you/ I know you think that I erased you/ You may hate me, but I can’t hate you/ And I won’t replace you.” Furthermore, although Williams married New Found Glory’s Chad Gilbert last year, After Laughter’s requisite love song “Pool” frames their romance as something short of happily ever after: “Could’ve gotten the same rush from any lover’s touch/ But why get used to something new? ‘Cause no one breaks my heart like you.” As Williams told the Times, “a lot of life happened” in the years leading up to this release.

So it’s easy to see why Williams was bumming. It’s less clear why Paramore decided to make an album that goes down like a cocktail of Phil Collins, Cyndi Lauper, and Art Of Noise. Some transformation was to be expected, especially with a lineup change that saw Davis departing and former drummer Zac Farro returning to the fold. But no one was asking for this: certainly not the old-school fans, and probably not the people who got on board with “Ain’t It Fun” either. There are cases to be made that all the tumult behind the scenes would have translated to some transcendent vintage Paramore anthems and that ’80s nostalgia is the least fresh reinvention possible at this stage of history. Even if you concede that no band should be forced to endlessly repeat their past, it’s not wrong to be disappointed by this particular choice of direction.

Still, once you get over the whiplash of hearing Paramore’s most ferocious impulses tamed and Williams’ unmistakable vocals wrangled into yet another retro exercise, there’s no denying that her melodic and lyrical gifts remain intact or that she and her bandmates are capable of beautifully manifesting whatever their vision might be. As songwriters, musicians, and producers, they are a model unit, no matter what Williams might communicate on the I-ain’t-your-hero confrontation “Idle Worship.” If After Laughter doesn’t scale the heights we’ve become accustomed to from a Paramore record, it also never stumbles. If it is their least essential album, inessential has rarely sounded so good. And if it seems like a missed opportunity, look around at Paramore’s former contemporaries and realize it could be much worse.

Justin Bieber
CREDIT: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

CHART WATCH

For the fourth straight week, America has a new #1 song — the most turnover atop the Hot 100 since the chart saw seven straight upheavals in 1990. This time, as previously reported, it’s Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber’s “Despacito,” which achieves a number of statistical feats: It’s the first #1 for both Fonsi and Daddy Yankee and the fifth for Bieber. It’s the first predominantly Spanish-language song to go #1 since Los Del Rio’s “Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)” in 1996 and only the third ever following Los Lobos’ “La Bamba” in 1987. It makes Bieber the first artist to notch new #1 songs in consecutive weeks following his appearance on DJ Khaled’s “I’m The One” last week. It also makes him the first artist to replace himself at #1 since… Justin Bieber, when “Love Yourself” supplanted “Sorry” in February 2016.

Bruno Mars’ former #1 “That’s What I Like” remains at #2, while Khaled’s “I’m The One,” featuring Bieber, Quavo, Chance The Rapper, and Lil Wayne, falls to #3. Two more former #1s, Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” and Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.,” follow at #4 and #5. Then comes Future’s “Mask Off” at #6, the Chainsmokers and Coldplay’s “Something Just Like This” at #7, Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO TOUR Llif3″ at #8, Zedd and Alessia Cara’s “Stay” at #9, and Kyle and Lil Yachty’s “iSpy” at #4.

Over on the albums chart, Logic prevails. The rapper’s Everybody debuts at #1 with 247,000 equivalent units, and unlike some recent streaming-abetted chart-toppers, his standing mostly derives from 196,000 in traditional album sales. That said, Chris Stapleton’s From A Room Volume 1 actually sold more copies: 202,000, to be exact, contributing to 219,000 overall units and a #2 debut. After that comes Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. at #3, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Vol. 2: Awesome Mix Vol. 2 at #4 (a new peak for the film soundtrack), Drake’s More Life at #5, and Ed Sheeran’s ÷ at #6. Russ gets 49,000 units — 23,000 of them from streaming — and a #7 debut for the rapper’s first album There’s Really A Wolf. And the rest of the top 10 comprises Bruno Mars, Gorillaz, and the Epic AF compilation.

POP FIVE

Selena Gomez – “Bad Liar”
God bless Selena Gomez’s new wave fixation. It’s already given us a great Yaz cover from 13 Reasons Why, and now we get this genius “Psycho Killer” transformation. Not so much a fan of her suicide fixation, though, as depicted in the Netflix show and this song’s cover art.

DNCE & Nicki Minaj – “Kissing Strangers”
I imagine Adam Levine hearing this and texting Joe Jonas, “You come at the king, you best not miss!”

Bryson Tiller – “Get Mine” (Feat. Young Thug)
Although Tiller’s music is hardly unlistenable, he has a reputation for being a generic alternative to R&B’s leading lights. Never has that been clearer when Young Thug shows up here and transforms an otherwise remarkable track into appointment listening.

Zara Larsson – “Don’t Let Me Be Yours”
A lot of Larsson’s songs have struck me as a bit overblown, so it’s nice to hear her easing into something looser and less sonically busy here.

Lady Antebellum – “You Look Good”
Until the drawling vocals come in, this doesn’t even scan as a country song. It speaks to both Nashville’s essential poppiness and Lady A’s crossover ambition.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • The revived American Idol wanted Kelly Clarkson as a judge, but she’s decided to join The Voice instead. [TMZ]
  • Simon Cowell says he won’t return to Idol either. [Extra]
  • Taylor Swift surfaced in Nashville over the weekend, visiting her mom for Mother’s Day. She hadn’t been seen in public for months. [TMZ]
  • Swift is also reportedly dating British actor Joe Alwyn. [E!]
  • And David Mueller, the radio DJ who is accused of grabbing Swift’s butt during a meet-and-greet (and was later fired for it), is looking to preclude one of the pop star’s expert witnesses from testifying at the upcoming trial. [THR]
  • Katy Perry revealed her new album cover and it sure is a lot. [Idolator]
  • Here’s Lorde talking about how she became friends with Jack Antonoff: “We were at a Grimes show, and he was like, ‘I’ll go get you a drink’ and sort of disappeared into another room and came back with a can of pineapple juice – which is quite a weird thing to bring someone – handed it to me, then whipped it back and rubbed the top of it and said, ‘Rats crawl over them in the factories.'” Aww. [Rolling Stone]
  • Shakira’s new album El Dorado is out 5/26. [Twitter]
  • Lil Yachty, Weird Al, and Andy Grammer contribute to the Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie soundtrack. [Billboard]
  • Madonna will release a Rebel Heart tour DVD and live album in September. [Popcrush]
  • Meanwhile a “new” Madonna song (more likely a demo) briefly surfaced on iTunes over the weekend. [Gay Times]
  • Niall Horan debuted a new song “On The Loose” in San Diego. [YouTube]
  • Nick Jonas teased a new song “Looking For Love” on Snapchat. [Twitter]
  • Camila Cabello announced her debut solo album The Hurting, The Healing, The Loving. The first song from it is out Friday. [DirectLyrics]
  • Beyoncé leads this year’s BET Awards nominations with seven. Bruno Mars follows with five. [NY Daily News]
  • Apple Music has a new documentary about the making of Harry Styles’ debut album. [Spin]
  • A. G. Cook shared track-by-track notes on Charli XCX’s Number 1 Angel. [A. G. Cook]
  • Lady Gaga is selling exclusive Joanne merch at Urban Outfitters. [In Style]
  • Elle King met a guy on Valentine’s Day of last year, secretly married him three weeks later, and now they’re getting divorced. TMZ has learned he was busted for domestic violence weeks before the split. [TMZ]
  • Miley Cyrus took over NBC yesterday, appearing on various shows to promote her new single. [Today]

    HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME