Paramore’s latest release, After Laughter, is a fascinating contradiction. On one hand, it sparkles and shines like the best pop music. On the other hand, the lyrics paint a grim picture of pain, doubt, and failure. It’s a bitter pill wrapped in corn-syrup bliss. For a work with so much going on, however, it still comes up short in a few ways. Sadly, I think that is intentional.
If you’re looking for a collection of songs to play at your next pool party, you could do worse than this unapologetically ’80s-sounding set. Considering that none of the band members were more than toddlers in that decade, they do a convincing job of channeling its most synthetic and hooky overtones. The influence of acts like The Fixx, Oingo Boingo, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Human League, and INXS range from subtle to obvious, but are all filtered through a genuinely modern lens. Even at their punk/emo best, Paramore has always been a pop band at heart. These loops and samples just make it official.
And make no mistake, Paramore knows what they are doing. The first four or five times I spun After Laughter it gave me a happy feeling, like I was back in high school hanging out with my friends. But then the record’s split personality started to gurgle to the surface. Suddenly other high-school emotions came to mind and I ran to the bathroom to check my face for pimples.
For all of After Laughter’s saccharine joy, the lyrics paint a deeply disturbing and profoundly sad picture of a young woman barely able to keep her head above the flood waters. Not since Men at Work’s “Who Can It Be Now” has pop music so craftily disguised a mental breakdown as fodder for a dance party. Chief lyricist and frontwoman Hayley Williams seems to be crying for help. Anxiety, fear, self-loathing, resentment, anger, apathy, hopelessness, and cynicism are explored, confessed, and at times even embraced. Williams seems determined to convince you that she is truly miserable, and she and the band use some of the most uplifting and catchy music to ironically accompany the message. It’s like a jelly donut filled with blood, and once the darkness catches up to the sugar, the effect is dizzying.
Williams and various other on-and-off members of Paramore have been at this for 15 years now, which is actually more than half of their lives. As such, After Laughter offers an interesting perspective on the emptiness of celebrity in the social-media age of millennials. The band’s well-documented internal struggles, member changes, relationship challenges, and even lawsuits have been lived out online. As with their other releases, After Laughter functions as a sort of musical status update. Whereas their earlier work, perhaps shaped by their Christian backgrounds, seemed to offer a “hang in there/be true to yourself” kind of aspirational hope, this set seems doomed to be accompanied by a fuming, weeping emoji that happens to be wearing a Devo hat and a Cyndi Lauper t-shirt.
The early Paramore song “We Are Broken,” from their 2007 album Riot!, acknowledged a need for healing and hope in the form of a desperate prayer to a God with “arms like towers.” In that song Williams reflects the long tradition of psalmic lament. She describes brokenness and yet resolves to cling to something bigger than her pain. The song echoes King David, hiding in a cave, singing about hiding in the shelter of God’s wings. The saddest thing about After Laughter is that there seems to be nothing bigger than the pain. There is no shadow to hide in.
Being honest about pain is important. Refusing to sugarcoat the struggles of life is one of the key differences between thoughtful and honest faith-informed art and shallow Christian propaganda. Williams’ transparency is admirable, and the way she subversively delivers brutal honesty dressed up like simple pop music is impressive indeed. I do wish, however, that there was at least one moment here that offered something worth grabbing onto in the sea of uncertainty. The closest we get is the ballad “26,” in which Williams advises her listener to “hold on to hope, if you got it.” Not much there but more sadness. There is nothing more sad than the end of hope.
As a study of both internal and interpersonal tension and dysfunction, After Laughter works well. It asks far more questions than it answers, and that’s OK. The song craft and production are amazing. Williams’ voice has never sounded more powerful, supple, or convincing. The band clearly brings the best out of her. But as the final track, a beautiful and haunting ballad called “Tell Me How” fades away with the singer begging for a balm for self-inflicted wounds, I find myself wishing the conversation could continue.
Maybe that’s the point.