With the recent influx of pop-punk themed cocktail hours and emo nights, I’ve tentatively developed a theory that we’re living in a 2008 renaissance. I recently found the perfect pair of black skinny jeans that would make my middle school self drool, and I heard a new Panic! At the Disco song on the radio. Most importantly, three years after their self-titled release, Paramore released their fifth album, “After Laughter.”
This album marks the return of band’s original drummer, Zac Farro, and a new synth-infused sound for the band. The lead single, “Hard Times,” utilizes ska-inspired beats that are similar to “Rock Steady”-era No Doubt. It’s more upbeat than previous records, and it could be the band’s first true pop banger. It’s infectious, but a troubled lyrical reality lurks beneath the neon hues of the music video as Williams sings, “All that I want / is to wake up fine. / You tell me that it’s alright / that I ain’t gonna die.” It may seem superfluous to note, but no amount of synths can conceal a situation so tough that the idea outcome is simply not dying.
In the follow-up track, William croons, “Just let me cry / a little bit longer / I ain’t gonna smile / if I don’t want to.” This is actually one of the healthiest impulses I’ve heard in the lyrics of a song. So often, people are quick to try and eradicate their negative emotions rather than give themselves the space to actually feel them.
Come to think of it, providing a space for fans to actually feel things is one of the reasons why emo as a genre has continued to thrive within rock ’n’ roll. This impulse to allow is one of the reasons Paramore was such a great pop punk band in the first place. I first found Paramore a decade ago, when they released “Riot” — a record that both blew my mind and presented me with my first real crush. I was struck by the edge of the riffs and the pounding of the drums, as well as Williams’ very real and complex articulation of a deeper sadness that I didn’t yet have a name for.
The feeling of discontent hiding beneath pristine realities is an integral theme throughout Paramore’s discography, and this record is no exception. “Fake Happy” starts with the stray acoustic chords and segues into tighter funk-infused guitars as Williams muses, “I bet everybody here is fake happy too.” In this track, Williams contemplates the tenuous nature of happiness itself as she admits, “I should have known that when things are going fine / that’s when I get knocked down.” It’s an undeniably honest sentiment hidden beneath a pop guitar hook.
The following track, “26,” is actually a softer acoustic track, paired with a string orchestra. It’s an eventually decadent orchestration, but the ethos of the song is similar to “Misguided Ghosts,” from Paramore’s 2008 release, “Brand New Eyes.” The idea that “dreamin’ is free” would seem cheesy, but Williams makes allows the honesty to drown out what would otherwise be a cliche. Williams’ ability to use raw lyricism to transcend cliches has always been one of my favorite things about her writing; it speaks to her upbringing as an emo fan, and devotee of Sunny Day Real Estate and Jimmy Eat World.
Williams’ emo heritage also appears as she sings, “I can’t think of getting old / it makes me want to die.” It’s a line in the song “Caught In The Middle” that’s deliciously saturated with feeling — one that anyone who appreciated Pete Wentz’s 2007 eye makeup job will also appreciate. Similarly, the decision to include MeWithoutYou’s Aaron Weiss on “No Friend” is another nod to Paramore’s pop punk roots.
Musically, though, Paramore references more mainstream pop projects like “E*MO*TION”-era Carly Rae Jepsen or HAIM via bouncy ’80s inspired bass lines. This combination of emo sentiments with pop-rock riffs is magical. This record did the impossible: It has provided the former emo kids / current emo 20-somethings a summer soundtrack that won’t depress the shit out of whoever is riding shotgun.
This record is successful because Williams maintains an unflinching level of honesty throughout. The fact that she refuses to compromise her confessional style is one of the reasons the band’s experimentation with a pop sound feels so seamless. Sure, there may be some synths, and the line up may have shifted, but the core ethos of honesty and killer pop punk riffs that made Paramore so remarkable when they released their 2005 debut record “All We Know is Falling” is still there.
There are many things I regret about eighth grade, but writing a four-page essay about Paramore is not one of them. I always knew they could make a killer record. “After Laughter” is triumph.
A version of this piece was previously published in Hooligan Mag.