Paramore – After Laughter, 2017

After four long years Paramore have returned with a triumphant new album. Filled to the brim with 80’s pop beats and shimmering melodies the fifth album from the Tennessee pop-rockers demonstrates versatility, defiance in the face of adversity and a sound unlike anything we’ve previously heard from the Paramore camp. As a band who have been plagued by unfortunate events, the departure of guitarist and drummer Josh and Zac Farro; the now settled lawsuit over writing credits coming from ex bassist Jeremy Davis and frequent fallings out (particularly between the releases of Riot! and Brand New Eyes) this new release is a testament to the unyielding spirit and strength of Paramore.

Upon first listening to After Laughter it is plain to see that this isn’t the same Paramore that Fuelled with Ramen presented to us in 2005. Gone are the sounds of the angst-fuelled pop-punk tracks of All We Know and Riot! and welcome to the new, more mature sound of After Laughter. However, beneath the glossy synths and cheery tropical pop beats there is a darker undertone. There is a definite juxtaposition between the general feel of this album and the song titles. Tracks like ‘Rose-Coloured Boy’ with its almost pep-rallyesque chanting and chorus that transports you to happier times, and ‘Caught In The Middle’ with its No Doubt inspired reggae/ska beats hold a much more despondent meaning.

It seems clear that After Laughter is the album that finally does away with ‘Paramore’ as we knew them; they are no longer a torpedo of pop-punk hits colliding with filled stadiums and world tours. Their self-titled 2013 release, ‘Paramore,’ began to gently peel off the band aid and now, four years later, After Laughter has arrived to tear it off without a hint of mercy.

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‘Hard Times,’ the first track and first single from After Laughter carries the weight of over a decade’s worth of strife. Opening with a bright marimba that immediately evokes images of a Caribbean beach the song then kicks into a more guitar fuelled second intro, yet still remains true to the tropical feel of the opening. The repetition of ‘Hard Times’ during the chorus, accented by Williams’ lyrics ‘gonna make you wonder why you even try/gonna take you down and laugh when you cry/and I still don’t know how I even survive,’ shows a certain exasperation with their situation and a feeling of victimisation by their circumstances. The second verse, with the lyrics ‘you hit me lightning/maybe I’ll come alive,’ being almost shouted demonstrates that there is still optimism in the band, even after all this time, as if being struck down will only allow them to rise again from their ashes, reborn with fresh ideas bolstered by their experiences of hardship.

Track five of After Laughter, ‘Fake Happy,’ is a song about the expectation of the public, the media and even friends to push your struggles down and just ‘smile with my teeth.’ The acoustic intro, with Williams’ vocals put through a sort of telephone filter give an almost dream-like feel to the opening. After, comes the signature sound of the album, bouncy synth/guitar sounds with prominent drums and almost obscenely jolly guitar licks (particularly the four bar phrase just after the chorus). There are hints of Williams being at the point of breaking down; the lyrics ‘Oh, please don’t ask me how I’ve been/don’t make me play pretend,’ suggest that the pressure to put forward a smile is too much, it’s insincere and leads to a disingenuous persona being presented. Perhaps this song also hints at the idea that the Paramore we’ve seen for the past decade has not been a genuine one, with an identity that panders to their music rather than their music being an expression of their identity. ‘Fake Happy’ is an upbeat, ambitious track that perfectly describes the feeling of masking your unhappiness and is one that resonates well with their fan base.

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Interestingly, Paramore have always been branded under the rock banner of the rock/pop binary yet now, with this album being firmly fixed in 1980’s pop territory (inspired by the likes of Talking Heads and the Bangles) their categorisation seems to be under review. While rock is very spontaneous and in-the-moment in its performance and typically unpolished in its presentation pop is a very different animal. Choreographed dance routines and bright, shiny ProTools production; squeaky clean and manufactured, there’s an element of forced personality in pop. Yet Paramore seem to deny these pop ideals despite their music. Watching them on stage you see the natural movements of each member, simply responding in a way that expresses how the music makes them feel. Conversely their new musical direction is very much a shimmering, well produced piece of art more akin to the pop records of artists like Ariana Grande and Katy Perry. So in a sense, the new Paramore are problematizing the classification of genre, are they pop? Are they rock? Well, perhaps they’re both.

Nicholas Cook posits that ‘Rock musicians perform live, create their own music, and forge their own identities; in short, they control their own destinies. Pop musicians, by contrast, are the puppets of the music business, cynically or naïvely pandering to popular tastes, and performing music composed and arranged by others; they lack authenticity, and as such they come at the bottom of the hierarchy of musicianship.’ So by this definition of the rock and pop binary Paramore are certainly still a rock band. They have cultivated an identity over the past decade, perform all over the world and are responsible for the music they create. They are authentic and don’t deny their experiences or emotions in order to sell music, drawing directly on these experiences and emotions to produce songs that are true to themselves as opposed to a meaningless crowd pleasing love song.

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What of their identity though? It is utterly without doubt that After Laughter is an attempt to reinvent Paramore; to take a step away from the dark pop-punk hits of their youth and start afresh. This album is telling of the fatigue Paramore experienced with their identity. What were they known as? What images did the name ‘Paramore’ produce? It’s quite simple. Emo. Paramore were one of the bands that led the charge in the emo music scene of the early noughties, alongside acts like My Chemical Romance, Panic at the Disco and All Time Low. It was while creating music during the period of this identity that Paramore suffered, and, as a result of that have rebranded in technicolour with music that could more accurately be categorised alongside the likes of Haim and Two Door Cinema Club. The lyrical content throughout After Laughter is also incredibly introspective, a commentary on the death of Paramore as a pop-punk band and their revival as a new, contemporary pop band.

Tim Wall (2013) gives forth the idea that there are three competing definitions of popular music; music that is popular in that it widely liked, music that is considered by some to have low cultural value, and music that is ‘popular’ in the sense that it is ‘of the people.’ After Laughter fits the first definition Wall gives having attained the number one spots on both Billboard Top Alternative Album and Top Rock Album charts in the US (Billboard.com, 2017). After Laughter has also been the recipient of glowing reviews from NME, Rolling Stone and Pitchfork, all of which describe Paramore’s latest effort as a triumph is some form or another. A shift in Paramore’s identity has left them with a legion of dedicated fans but has also acted as a way of making their music more accessible to a wider audience. The songs tackle the topics of depression, anxiety, unhappiness and uncertainty which allows the listener ‘to leave the world of people and things, and enter one of thought and feeling,’ (Cook 2000, p.1).

After Laughter is a bold statement from Paramore. A deliberate change in tone to their previous offerings, this album is masterpiece of genuine 1980’s inspired summer tracks. An album full of ear cookies, with songs like ‘Told You So,’ ‘Grudges,’ and ‘Rose Coloured Boy’ standing strong amongst a legion of powerful messages and a middle finger to the problems of the past. There is tension between the punchy synth laden anthems and Williams’ vocals that gives a real sense that maybe everything isn’t quite alright, but that’s okay. This is an album of acceptance and acknowledgment that the hard times you face make you a stronger person. Splitting from pop-punk during a time where the genre is experiencing a comeback is brave, sticking to their pop-punk roots would certainly have been the easiest path for Paramore to follow, but they’ve remained true to themselves and they’ve produced an album that is sincere to them. And its paid off. After Laughter shines amongst Paramore’s back catalogue as the brightest star in their night sky, and one that will outlast the others as a truly stand out album.

Bibliography

  1. Cook, N. (2000). Music, a very short introduction. 1st Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.11.
  2. Wall, T. (2013). Studying popular music culture. 2nd London: SAGE, p.ix.
  3. (2017). Charts. [online] Available at: http://www.billboard.com/charts#id-chart-category-rock [Accessed 27 May 2017].
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