We live in a world populated by bands that exist as mere shells of their former selves. Guns N’ Roses is now the Axl Rose Experience, the Smashing Pumpkins essentially boils down to Billy Corgan and whoever isn’t pissing him off at the moment, and now, pop-punk early aught-staple Paramore is merely lead singer Hayley Williams with the help of the newly recruited Jeremy Davis and Taylor York.
Having hobbled along subsisting on one-off Twilight and Transformers soundtrack singles and the occasional award-show red carpet appearance, Paramore emerges relatively unscathed from its awkward transitional phase. Produced by longtime Beck and M83 collaborator Justin Meldal-Johson, Paramore is an experiment in reinvention. Chalk the improvement up to the effusive Williams, whose vocals have never been this pleasing to the ear. Think of her fourth album sonic transformation as that of a more jaded Best Coast, poppy and instantly recognizable while still maintaining its elusive distance from longtime listeners.
It’s an album packed with potential, and with potential singles as well, especially disc opener “Fast In My Car,” a song that sounds exactly like you think it might but still manages to trump fellow driving songs like Rihanna’s insipid “Shut Up and Drive” or Train’s bland “Drive By.” More often than not, Paramore’s rock roots find themselves twirled around of-the-moment electronic intonations, a surefire sign of a heavy-handed label. This isn’t the band’s sound, no matter how much change has occurred behind the scenes-it’s a step backward, using pop power as a crutch rather than a launch pad. Songs like “Daydreaming” and the simple, gorgeous, “Last Hope” manage to shake those constraints adeptly, proving that the band is capable of something more flexible than four-on-the-floor manufacturing.
There are, it should be noted, some serious snoozers littered throughout the album, signifying a lack of clarity and direction in an effort that easily could and should have been shortened by four or five tracks. “Grow Up” is a one-note Maroon 5 b-side that should’ve been scrapped and offered to whatever the next High School Musical the Disney Channel is currently concocting. On “Ain’t It Fun,” Williams’ chorus tries to break out of a song otherwise muddled by dull bridges and otherwise uninspired refrains.
The interludes: oh the interludes, the three album-halting, brief displays of ukulele-laden “quirky,” just playing around, anything-can-happen-in-the-studio trifles that scream label interference. It’s easy to imagine a Fueled by Ramen exec pulling his hair out at a lack of musical cohesion on the album and demanding some interludes to cluster sets of songs-loosely-by theme. It doesn’t work, and it insults an audience by supposing that listeners are too dumb to sort their own way through an LP’s intricacies.
Lyrically, Paramore doesn’t offer anything hefty to write home about. Williams certainly lashes out at her former bandmates through songs like the first single “Now,” demanding of her target, “don’t try to take this from me / don’t try to take this from me now.” There are glimmers of a literary evolution on certain songs-indeed, Williams herself has always had a quick tongue, bending lyrics around a chorus, bending her tracks to the whims of whirly vocal inflections and rat-tat delivery. “What once was blazing light / now there’s a tiny spark,” the raven-haired singer muses on showstopper “Part II,” a complex and oh-too-brief snippet of a Paramore that easily could have been on this reinvention effort. It shows flashes of the Strokes, snippets of the Police, hell, even some Bruno Mars realness on its chorus, and it’s destined to be overlooked by radio in favor of the more “approachable” (read: dumbed down) songs. Don’t ignore it. As a culture, we need more “Part II” and less Katy Perry copycat “Still Into You” coming from our ear buds.
There’s something to be said about this year’s surprising and not particularly desired comeback of pop-punk acts like Paramore, Fall Out Boy, and to some degree, Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Ten years ago saw the thriving of acts like Eminem, the Dixie Chicks, and other like-minded “angry” acts who tried to buck the system. Bands like Paramore and Fall Out Boy came out of that era like Kidz Bop versions of their elders, trying to diffuse the same kinds of anger into prepackaged bites for a younger, more marketable generation. Now that these angst-rockers are restringing their guitars, a question remains: what’s there to be so angry about?