I still have very vivid memories of when Paramore first broke out into the music scene. Seemingly almost every day during the drives to school back in middle school, their music would be played on the big pop stations constantly, alongside fellow Fueled By Ramen veterans Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco. As the years went by, Paramore’s presence in the mainstream seemed to fade away as Hayley Williams forayed into guest work on other pop artists’ material. They came back in a pretty big way with 2013’s Paramore, an album which showed nods to their punk past while foraying into a more mainstream pop sound, even giving them the biggest hit single of their career so far, “Ain’t It Fun.” It appears Paramore isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, as after 4 years and the return of founding drummer Zac Farro, they’re back with their 5th full-length album, After Laughter.
It’s kind of tough to know where to start with this album as, for a Paramore release, it’s surprisingly intricate in its musical and lyrical ideas, but we’ll get to that soon. The album opens with the lead single “Hard Times,” a decidedly sugary sweet ode to the pop rock of the ‘80s with its tropical xylophone melody, fun drum grooves, and massive gang vocal chorus. It’s a really fun opener, and Hayley Williams sounds incredibly energetic in her singing, but the mood is contrasted by the lyrics, as they discuss having to power through life’s hardships and tough challenges. This vibe is reflected in the following three songs: playful homages to ‘80s new wave with glittering synths, exotic percussive melodies and drum beats (possibly some of Zac Farro’s best work on record to date), and a general bouncy tone, mixed with brief passages into moodier digressions. These songs are frequently contrasted with lyrics about perceiving an idealized version of the world in depressing times (“Rose-Colored Boy”), the anxious fear of screwing up in front of other people (“Told You So”), and similar topics.
Once the album reaches “Fake Happy,” its intentions become incredibly clear. After Laughter’s important big idea is about the illusion of happiness and being depressed in a world that expects you to be happy no matter what (hell, the album art features a literal optical illusion right in the center, if this wasn’t clear enough). The way the album progresses and unveils this idea is actually pretty clever from a conceptual standpoint: hitting you with blasts of cheery sweetness before diving down into more moody and downbeat tunes. The album starts off strong and also ends strong, with the final tracks “Idle Worship,” “No Friend,” and “Tell Me How” providing an appropriately downer ending to the previously enthusiastic proceedings. “Idle Worship” has some incredibly uneasy synthesizer patterns that accentuate the song’s message about Hayley William’s uneasy relationship with her own fans/sense of stardom. “No Friend” is a melancholic alternative rock tune featuring vocals from Mewithoutyou’s Aaron Weiss, delivering an abstract and verbose stream-of-conscious monologue that’s meant to relay the story of Paramore’s career up to now in a way that compliments the previous track. The album closer “Tell Me How” is a somber piano ballad expressing remorse over lost friendships and a sense of uncertainty about the future, with Hayley at her most emotionally honest and vulnerable.
While the album’s thematic ambitions are admirable, I feel as though there’s a few odd structural issues that keep the album from being as good as it ought to be. This mainly stems from how quickly the album shifts from happiness to depression, as it’s not really all that gradual. After the first 4 songs, the album takes a hard right turn into the more somber material that’s meant to be the focal point. It’s not necessarily bad per se, as the emotional honesty of Paramore’s lyrics and music has always been part of their appeal, but the rhythm and pacing of its ideas feel a bit jagged, especially when the album tries to swing back to the new-wave glamour of songs like “Pool” and “Grudges.” Both of them are really good pop rock jams with really tight compositional work, especially Zac’s drum fills on the latter, but both feel like they should be closer to the first half of the album, helping to give a better segue into the moodier proceedings. It might seem like a small thing, but the issues with structuring and flow are enough to make the big picture feel just a little sloppy. I give the album an “A” for effort as far as its ambitions in the context of the Paramore catalogue, but things could have been tightened up a little more.
Overall, After Laughter is a pretty solid listen that finds Paramore feeling more inspired and rejuvenated than before. Despite the fact that the message and themes are somewhat undermined by the off-kilter arrangement of the track list, the album still offers a good mix of upbeat catchy songs and more downer material, and the lyrics, combined with Hayley’s always solid vocal performances, show the band at their most emotionally honest. It’s not the band’s best album, but it’s worth a listen or two if you’re curious.
Verdict: Stream it. There’s enough fun songs and clever songwriting to merit at least a couple of listens.
After Laughter is available from Fueled By Ramen on CD, digital download, and streaming services.