“I’m not lonely, baby, I am free,” sings Hayley Williams on her debut solo album, Petals for Armor, and her relief is palpable as she hums, “Finally.” She is singing of her home and of finding peace in her daily routines, which has taken on a new meaning since the pandemic has turned our homes into workplaces, classrooms, and the site of most of our everyday activity. Williams is known best as the lead singer of the American band Paramore, which has released five studio albums since 2005, but it took Williams until 2020 for her to strike out on her own (even as she reassured fans that her solo album did not spell the end for Paramore). It’s not that Paramore has ever held her back artistically; it is simply that now, Williams embraces the opportunity to dive into a narrative that is identifiably her own.
“Simmer,” which lives up to its name with its barely-withheld rage, became her first single in January 2020, alongside an announcement that the full album, Petals for Armor, would be released in May. Promotion included a staggered rollout, which meant that the album was broken into thirds, with three different EPs that combined into a whole. I first listened to “Simmer”—and the other four songs that made up the first EP—while sitting in libraries and cafes, whiling away late afternoons that were dark by 5 o’clock. By the time the second EP was released, comprising tracks 6-10 of the final album, it was April, and life had changed beyond any expectation. Part III came as promised in May, but the idea of a concert tour was, for obvious reasons, no longer on the table.
Though Williams could never have known the circumstances under which Petals for Armor would be released while writing and recording the album, its narrative rings powerfully regardless. “Simmer” is seething, grappling for control over bottled-up emotion – as Williams sings, “Rage is a quiet thing” – but it is only the first song in an album that takes anger and raw feeling as a necessary part of healing. That it closes with “Watch Me While I Bloom” and “Crystal Clear” as its final two tracks, with their distinct assertions of growth and self-empowerment, ultimately offers a glimmer of hope in processing and growing past old hurts.
This is not to say that Williams presents emotional recovery as a linear narrative; rather, its volatile nature makes Petals more genuine, in that we can see many scattered pieces that all contribute differently to the story at hand. Its unpredictability also, however, makes the album sonically and thematically disjointed as we progress from one track to the next. There is such a mix of anger, sorrow, hope, and love spread out over the fifteen tracks that, in listening to Petals, you have to be ready for a complex journey.
“Dead Horse” is a standout with its bluntly confessional intro, and Williams’ willingness to confront her own shame – “I got what I deserved, I was the other woman first” – woven in with a rhythm inspired by popular African music. “Sugar on the Rim” has a memorable swagger as it explores the possibility of finding hope in a new relationship. The album slumps a little with “My Friend” and “Over Yet,” two back-to-back tracks; despite Williams’s consistently strong vocals, “My Friend” seems to be unnecessarily drawn-out, while “Over Yet”’s bright, catchy sound cannot quite make up for its unremarkable lyrics and oddly persistent positivity.
Last February, with very little warning, Williams released her second album, FLOWERS for VASES / descansos, which was entirely written and performed by Williams in lockdown from her Nashville home. There was no extended rollout and no talk of a tour; it was simply the album in its entirety. Given how deeply personal FLOWERS for VASES / descansos is, perhaps this was Williams’s way of connecting her listeners as authentically as possible, an attempt to reach through the loneliness of the last year. The album has a distinctly homemade feeling; when an airplane passes over Williams’s home and interrupts the opening lines of “HYD,” her irritated “Are you fucking kidding me?” snaps us out of our reverie for a surprisingly endearing moment. Who hasn’t been disrupted by some inconvenient background noise while trying to adapt their routine to what now passes for normal?
Williams explained that FLOWERS for VASES serves as a sort of detour for Petals for Armor, positioned somewhere in between the first and second EPs (in other words, the first two-thirds of the album). FLOWERS for VASES / descansos is a departure from the experimental pop of Petals, leaning into a stripped-back, folksy style that poignantly captures Williams’s self-contemplation.
Where Petals celebrated the journey from rage to healing, taking vulnerability and making it into strength, FLOWERS sits with that vulnerability and allows it to fill the space. “First Thing to Go” opens the album with a sense of loss and absence that hangs over the rest of FLOWERS, as Williams sings of slowly forgetting the voice of someone who was once important to her. Nostalgia and mourning are common threads throughout, especially in songs like “Good Grief” and “Inordinary.” The latter offers a glimpse into the story of a tumultuous childhood, and suggests that in isolation, Williams and her listeners have the chance to come to better terms with a past that otherwise would be buried in the noise of a fast-paced life.
There are two words featured prominently on this album that the average listener might need to look up: “Asystole” is the title of track three, and refers to the “cessation of electrical and mechanical activity of the heart.” It evokes imagery of hospitals and flat lines on monitors, and it fits right in with the tension of the album. Meanwhile, “descansos”, which acts as both the second title of the album and the name of its penultimate track, refers to crosses placed at the side of a road to memorialize victims, juxtaposing the implication of sudden, violent death with the haunting stillness of a memorial cross. This short instrumental track, meanwhile, echoes with children’s voices and Williams’s melodic humming. FLOWERS’s sparse lyricism sometimes works against it, making some of its verses and tracks feel hollow rather than haunting, but “Descansos” is powerful in its complete wordlessness.
The anger and hurt of Petals for Armor remain in FLOWERS for VASES, but its jagged edges are softened by a layer of melancholy. The transition from “First Thing to Go” and its gentleness to the spookier, more intense “My Limb” is jolting, while “Trigger” thrums on the edge of violence, with the tension of someone else’s fingers always wrapped around a gun. Williams is not shy about exploring pain, even amidst the most delicate instrumentation, and her honesty makes for a deeply moving work.
With both albums, Williams solidifies her personal narrative outside of Paramore’s fundamentally collaborative identity, and proves herself to be masterful at expressing the different facets of catharsis and the uneven roads to healing. In a time marked by loneliness and isolation, Williams offers us the empathy and strength she has found for herself.
When an airplane passes over Williams’s home and interrupts the opening lines of “HYD,” her irritated “Are you fucking kidding me?” snaps us out of our reverie for a surprisingly endearing moment. Who hasn’t been disrupted by some inconvenient background noise while trying to adapt their routine to what now passes for normal?