Album Review: Hayley Williams – Petals For Armor

[Atlantic; 2020]

Petals For Armor, Hayley Williams debut solo record, begins with the tense and breathy “Simmer”, a gritted-teeth statement of the emotions we often let overrule us. Sadly, on the rest of the record, she never lets herself boil over quite as vigorously again.

As the front woman of Paramore, Williams has grown into one of the most recognisable voices in the pop-punk scene and, while fronting the band for over a decade, she has matured unfathomably. This record sees her honing that sense of self that After Laughter started to unveil, and doing it even more honestly than ever before. Yet, for many, she will feel unrecognisable.

While After Laughter masked darkness in day-glo melodies, Petals For Armor goes even further into the bubbly sounds and electronica of mainstream pop. A prime example is the club tropicana of “Dead Horse”, which is saccharine, but interestingly juxtaposed with its lyrics where she relives her divorce from New Found Glory’s Chad Gilbert. Intriguing, but these bursts of energy and forays into 80s synth, jazz-funk and any other joyous genre term you can think of feel somewhat trite. There’s a feeling of whiplash. Williams is recovering from trauma and rediscovering herself outside of what she has always known. So, while it’s not exactly cohesive, it does exude vulnerability.

Working with the supergroup of boygenius (Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers) on “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris”, the well-worn feminine metaphor of gardens and flowers is given a new lease in this gentle ode to holding each other up rather than tearing other women down. Feminine identity crops up throughout these 15 tracks and highlights the difficulty Williams has had with her image over the years in a male-dominated scene. The ownership of her strained – almost yelped – words in the opening of the twitchy “Watch Me While I Bloom” is empowering, as she recalls “How lucky I feel to be in my body again / how lovely I feel not to have to pretend,” against creamy funk synths.

Petals For Armor was originally delivered to fans as three separate five-track EPs, which have been gathered here like the disparate and drifting parts of Williams to form some kind of whole. Though, largely it appears that the fractures are still healing. There’s no shocking revelation in learning here about Williams’ battle with depression, and there is an undercurrent of moodiness that pervades even the sunniest sounding of tracks. Yet the outright tension of the first third feels daring and personal in a way that more clearly experimental tracks are missing.

This is a record which feels familiar and safely experimental, while Williams reveals more of herself than ever before. Just exactly who that is isn’t yet certain, and where she’ll go from here is anyone’s guess, but it’s sure to be interesting.