There’s a breathtaking dichotomy between the brazen, wailing frontwoman of pop-punk outfit Paramore and the burgeoning solo artist who admits that she was once so unsure of herself that a solo career didn’t totally register as a real possibility. “I’m realizing how little I believed in myself,” Hayley Williams said to USA Today. “Being part of something bigger than yourself is helpful… Doing something by myself is very challenging and empowering, but this is also just a lesson that I’m meant to learn.” Part of that lesson included seeking intensive therapy for her previously undiagnosed depression and PTSD for the first time, a development largely prompted by her divorce from New Found Glory’s Chad Gilbert. During treatment, Williams turned to journaling to help process her heartbreak and latent trauma. Those scribbled pages held what would become some of her most honest music yet, clearing the path for her first solo record.
Petals For Armor is easily her most revealing effort to date—even after a 15-year discography where she never exactly held back. After all, 2017’s After Laughter, like previous Paramore records, tapped into rage and enduring sadness in a way that was accessible to so many—especially women—despite its deceptively fun ’80s-era production. And yet, there’s a stark difference between the guitar-driven, aggressive-but-liberating timbre of that record’s “Rose-Colored Boy” and the percolating, quietly stewing fury that underlines “Simmer,” Petals For Armor’s chilling first single. Both address certain pain, but the latter—like the album it occupies—shows a distinct growth in both her artistry and her relationship with her anger and sadness. At 31 years old, Williams has eased into the realization that her righteous rage doesn’t always require loudly (albeit melodically) surrendering her self control, that her ability to temper her anger comes with its own bit of power (“Control / There’s so many ways to give in / Eyes close / Another way to make it to ten”). For a more straightforward celebration of Williams’ progress, “Watch Me While I Bloom” brings the uptempo promise of a flourishing woman on the path to healing (“I’m alive in spite of me / And I’m on my move / So come and look inside of me / Watch me while I bloom”).
And that kind of development—born of therapeutic insight and, more simply, age—is pervasive throughout Petals For Armor, where some (not all, thank goodness) opportunities to belt her frustration are traded for reined-in, perhaps more confident introspection. “Dead Horse” is a lively examination of her experience as the self-proclaimed “other woman.” More than just an earworm of a hook and a surprisingly sunny arrangement, the track, per Williams, “offers strength back to a younger, weaker version” of the young woman who engaged in a relationship with Gilbert, who was still married when they met. Meanwhile, “Cinnamon” is a warped, rocking ode to her home, a space where she can revel in the femininity that was such a sticking point early in her career when she most often occupied largely male spaces, as she recently divulged to Vulture. Further explorations of femininity can be found in “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris,” the meditative collaboration with indie supergroup boygenius, who bring breezy melodies and quiet empowerment.
Soul-arresting entry “Leave It Alone” offers a peek at grief in the wake of reigniting one’s own will to survive (“Now that I finally want to live / The ones I love are dying”), tinged with haunting strings and an eerily persistent snare. Both stunning and heartbreaking, it signals the scarier aspect of healing, where making room emotionally for love and worthwhile connections suddenly leaves you with so much more to possibly lose. That same fear drives album standout “Pure Love,” but in an entirely different, more hopeful direction. Arguably the most pop-leaning of the 15 songs, a funky, swaggering baseline and soaring synths score trepidation and the inherent risks of vulnerability. “Taken,” another thrumming, R&B-laced turn, immediately follows with a burst of momentary contentment, bragging of the love that meets Williams’ on the other side of the previous track’s caution.
Not every tune is necessarily stirring. “Creepin’” never quite builds upon its somewhat flat foundation, and stands out as a weaker entry, which speaks more to the strength of the songs that surround it than it does to Williams’ potential shortcomings. Among a rotation that offers pure dance in “Sugar On The Rim,” the abiding though forbidden sensuality of the seemingly Bjork-inspired “Sudden Desire,” the bluesy melancholy of “Why We Ever,” and the cataclysmic energy of “Over Yet,” a song getting lost in the shuffle seems like an inevitability.
Watching Williams tap into every side of her self-care journey, whether it invokes fear, unrest, curiosity, or newfound freedom, resonates more as a reintroduction than the return of a beloved vocalist. Capping the album with the breezy “Crystal Clear,” a gorgeous toast to moving forward, proves to be an effective way to build excitement for what’s to come from an artist standing on her own two feet. Though it contains mere hints of the scrappy rocker we’ve watched for 15 years, Petals Of Armor is the bold signature of someone who is more than ready to show off different sides of herself—yet has nothing left to prove to anyone.