Hayley Williams is an alternative American sweetheart, capturing the hearts of millions with her band Paramore. Her crossover appeal has made her a favorite among angsty teens and vaguely familiar amongst even the most culturally unaware. Williams’ striking voice and lyricism set her apart from her emo counterparts as Paramore found the sweet spot between counterculture and pop stardom. Over the past decade, Williams has slowly forayed into a solo career with the occasional guest vocal spot, ultimately culminating with Petals For Armor, her solo debut. After her decade-long relationship with and highly publicized divorce from New Found Glory guitarist Chad Gilbert, the now 31-year old Williams took to her solo work as a way to open up about her struggles with mental health and romance. While Williams used Paramore’s later efforts as an opportunity to express herself without the constraints of their original pop-punk roots, Petals For Armor feels like a true liberation made not out of frustration, but out of realization.
The opening track “Simmer” uses vocal loops and delicate percussion to create a tense yet atmospheric introduction to this new world that Petals For Armor builds. Williams pushes her vocal limits as she dances between sensual whispers and expertly restrained high notes. In many ways, it’s a humble reintroduction to her, showcasing her true range. “Cinnamon,” the album’s most off-kilter track, features almost primal vocalizations over syncopated snares which eventually evolve into a tight dance groove. Williams’ lyricism shines on the first half of the record, particularly on “Creepin,’.” where we finally get deep into the crevices of her trauma, beautifully articulated over her distorted vocals: “It always starts as something so simple and innocent but / Too much of anything you’ll never know how to quit, ah / You had a taste but you don’t want to forget it / Oh, just keep on suckin’ on the memory of him.” While the first half of the album’s instrumentation is subtle and repetitive at times, fellow Paramore bandmate Taylor York’s production radiates. The emphasis on certain drum sounds, basslines and Williams’ vocal quirks make it an enthralling listen.
Towards the middle of the album, the poppier influences come out, and, unsurprisingly, this is where Petals For Armor almost loses its footing. “Dead Horse” (which is featured in Spotify’s special video series in honor of the album, which has been unfurling on their social accounts throughout the day) tells of Williams’ early relationship with Gilbert—when she was the other woman. It’s a tough subject to tackle, and the message feels lost in the Caribbean-inspired percussion and guitar grooves. “Over Yet,” which sounds like an homage to Like a Virgin-era Madonna, is a much more focused and less disconcerting pop attempt, particularly in the chorus’ layered vocals that again emphasize Williams’ skill.
The album is redeemed again by “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris,” featuring indie-rock supergroup boygenius, made up of powerhouses Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers. It’s a match made in sad-girl heaven. The lyrics “Think of all the wilted women / Who crane their necks to reach a window / Ripping all their petals off just ‘cause / ‘He loves me now, he loves me not’” are heartbreakingly beautiful. Williams both embraces and contests her definitions of femininity, morphing her voice into staticky screams and ruminating on the expectations of women to settle. As she reflects on her twenties being occupied by a relationship that ultimately ended in divorce, it feels as though she is beginning to pick up the pieces of her younger self to heal in this next chapter of her life.
The last few tracks of the album feel like charming ’80s pop homages which signify her newfound liberation. It sounds cheesy at times, but the infectious synths on “Pure Love” and Jazzercise-friendly “Sugar On The Rim” are nothing but unadulterated fun. It sounds like a slow motion pillow fight at a middle school slumber party. Maybe Williams has an old soul, but her more retro pop leanings sound far more genuine than tracks like “Dead Horse.” The album ends neither on a lull nor a high with “Crystal Clear.” In the bridge, she mentions, “Here we go / Gonna risk it again / Let’s hope it’s the last time,” alluding to a possible new relationship. It feels scary, and Williams takes listeners along on this tumultuous path of unlearning trauma and re-learning what it means to love and trust.
Throughout Petals For Armor, I could not help but feel enamored with Williams all over again. Her vulnerability is not slathered in metaphors, nor is it too plain for assumptions. On her solo debut, Williams goes beyond all expectations to create an experimental and multifaceted picture of pain as she opens up the door into a new decade of her life. It’s an earnest reflection of evolution in the spotlight, which she has been in since she was sixteen. Petals For Armor is the bridge she built into her own womanhood, and maybe we can learn something from it.
Jade Gomez is a New Jersey-based freelance writer, dog mom, Southern rap aficionado and compound sentence enthusiast. Her incessant commentary got her suspended from social media, so feel free to shout into the void or follow her on Instagram.