Back in 2006 I volunteered to review that year’s Warped Tour compilation for PopMatters. Compilations like that were always fun, with loads of variety it was easy to put together 700+ words. Of all 51 tracks on the two disc comp was a song featuring a then-17 year-old mopped with red hair called “Emergency”, and it was far and away the most interesting there. The girl was named Hayley, the band bore the cutesy name Paramore, and the way they combined pop hooks with straightforward post-punk was extraordinary, especially when you compared it to the sheer volume of sound-alikes and young hacks that permeate the Warped Tour every year. The Nashville band was still a bit rough around the edges, but you could hear something in the music that was unique, vibrant, and fun.
12 months later Paramore released Riot!, a record that saw the young band’s formula starting to coalesce beautifully, but in its singles – “Misery Business’, “crushcrushcrush”, the glorious “That’s What it Takes” – you could envision the kids transcending the whole post-punk thing completely. It also became glaringly obvious that Hayley Williams could easily eclipse her bandmates if the wanted. Here was a five-foot-nothing girl with a powerhouse voice, tremendous charisma, and a knack for some really unique vocal phrasing, and you could tell that the pop world could be hers to dominate if she wanted.
That creative momentum came to a dead halt on 2009’s Brand New Eyes. Despite a few strong tracks, it severely lacked the energy of Riot!, the typical portrait of a young, exhausted band trying desperately to make a strong statement on the follow-up to a breakthrough record and sounding fatigued in the process. Whether it was the whole Twilight soundtrack connection – did it ever take Paramore a long time to shake that stigma – or a lack of new ideas, the band had painted itself into a corner.
When brothers and original members Zac and Josh Farro left the band in December 2010 and posted a bitter, long-winded rant about how Paramore was a major label vehicle for Williams since day one, how she was the only one signed to Atlantic, and the rest of the band were treated as hired hands. This was the tipping point, the line being drawn in the sand between “rockism” and “poptimism”, resurrecting an age-old question: Can an act that is manufactured to come across as a “band” still have artistic merit? The Farros were practically claiming Williams had sold her soul to make Paramore a brand more than a band, questioning the integrity of the whole operation. What they were unwilling, or unable to admit, however, was that they were the ones holding the band back creatively. Josh Farro’s co-songwriting had hit the wall on Brand New Eyes, and if you look a little closer, intermittent member Taylor York had a hand in two of the band’s best songs, “That’s What You Get” and “Playing God”.
Which leads us to 2013’s Paramore. If there were any doubts as to whether the Farros were dead weights in this band, they have been erased completely. Paramore is an extraordinary transformation, an emancipation of sorts for Hayley Williams, the kind of redefinition from budding young talent to legitimate star that you do not see very often. Allmusic boldly declared the album “a landmark, a genre-breaking masterwork that, like Madonna’s Like a Prayer or U2’s Achtung Baby,” and once you get over the initial “huh?” upon reading that statement and spend time with the album, the more appropriate, nay, dead-on it turns out to be. In one fell swoop Paramore reduces its previous work to more two-dimensional snapsots, as this record is so rich, so varied, built completely around the unpredictable, eclectic personality of Williams. And most importantly, it’s a prime example of how hiring genuinely skilled, professional musicians to help craft a big, grandiose pop album – instead of a bunch of inexperienced young rockers – can work exceptionally well when done properly and tastefully.
It’s so typical of Williams The Reluctant Pop Star that the album cover features her not between York and Jeremy Davis, but on the right, looking away while her bandmates stare piercingly into the camera. She’s trying to make herself invisible, but the lighting is on her. The guys look drab and greenly lit, while her alabaster face shimmers. Is it a put-on? Of course it is. Of course she wants to be a pop star. But the contrivance of the cover also hints at a certain humility in Williams’ persona. She is going to knock your socks off, but instead of doing a photo spread like her pal Taylor Swift, this 24 year-old who looked so awkward on the cover of Cosmo is much more comfortable letting the music do the talking, which it does for 63 revelatory, exhilarating minutes.
Co-written solely by Williams and York – with the exception of two tracks – and produced by Justin Meidal-Johnsen, who did such brilliant work on M83’s career-defining 2011 double album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, what Paramore does so brilliantly is simply clear room for Williams. For all the efforts of York, Davis, and Meidal-Johnsen, this album is all about Hayley. Her personality carries the entire record, as she puts on display after display of stunning versatility. She can rock the hell out as well as anyone on “Fast in My Car”, “Now”, “Proof”, and “Anklebiters”. She goes all ‘80s R&B on “Ain’t it Fun” and sells it with pure joy (“So whaddya gonna do when the world don’t open uh around you?”) while a gospel choir, a freaking gospel choir, the dumbest, most pandering gimmick in pop music, brings the song to a sensational, ebullient climax. She does the whole “adorkable” thing on the ukulele interludes interspersed throughout the record. She does Go-Go’s power pop “Daydreaming”), The Cure’s influence looms over the icy, melancholic “Part II”, “Last Chance” shamelessly goes for Coldplay stadium-friendly “crescendo rock”, while she displays the tenderness of a country chanteuse on the understated “Hate to See Your Heart Break”. “(One of Those) Crazy Girls” has a classic, Phil Spector-era girl group feel to it, sold beautifully by Hayley, and as a final, jaw-dropping coup de grace, “Future” has her sounding stripped down before giving way to her bandmates, who morph the track into a near-eight-minute exercise in heavy drone that rivals Isis. Yeah, that’s right.
The album’s true shining moment is its second single, “Still Into You”. Giddy, bouncy, and adorned with little touches that gleefully hearken back to the 1980s – the new wave-ish funk beat, the muted guitar accents, that bassline, those clapclap handclaps – it’s a classic, pitch-perfect execution of the bubblegum pop formula featuring a powerhouse vocal performance by Williams. “Can’t count the years on one hand, that we’ve been together,” she sings, adding ingeniously, “I need the other one to hold you, make you feel, make you feel better.” Strife and slight self-doubt, followed by a confession over a hushed bridge (“After all this time…”), and then an explosion of emotion in one of the most adorable lines I’ve ever heard in a pop tune: “I should be over all the butterflies.” Sung with pure, unadulterated joy. Now buoyed by that admission, Williams becomes more playful – just listen to her phrasing as she sings, “Recount the night that I first met your mother” – and the song climaxes in a joyous, disco-beat driven break in which Williams sums up her sentiment so succinctly it’s oddly poetic: “Some things just, some things just make sense and one of those is you and I.”
Unlike so many mainstream American pop and rock releases, Paramore is anything but top-heavy. Sure, the first half is sensational, but the deep cuts later on is plenty rewarding, with “Proof”, “Hate to See Your Heart Break”, and “(One of Those) Crazy Girld” forming a great little trifecta. And thanks to Meidal-Johnsen, plenty of subtle touches are smattered throughout the entire record, a great example being the glockenspiel that creeps into “Anklebiters”, lending the track lightness, a putdown delivered with a cheeky smile.
Because the band started off when its members were so young, Paramore still has the stigma of being a kids’ band, and therefore not deserving of praise from music tastemakers, but make no mistake, for all its emphasis on teen-pleasing pop hooks, this is a brave, surprisingly mature album that invites instead of panders. Throughout the album are smattered lyrical references to the Farros – and note the “grow up’ written on Williams’ jacket inside the album – but Paramore is nevertheless careful to take the high road. In the end, all the drama of three years ago will be a distant memory, left in the dust of this lovable, vital, career-defining piece of work. Is it major label “product”? Of course it is. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not great art, a potential classic work of pop rock, and an easy choice as my Album of the Year.