Hayley Williams, All Alone With Her Memories
The pandemic has promoted music of solitude and self-reliance. For most of the years as the singer and central songwriter of Paramore, the million-selling punk-pop band she formed as a teenager in 2004, Hayley Williams insisted she had no interest in making a solo album. But their new, surprisingly released “Flowers for Vases / Descansos” is their second solo album in less than a year and it’s more solo than ever.
Flowers for Vases was written and performed entirely by Williams and recorded in their home studio. Separation and loneliness permeate the songs as Williams ponders the aftermath of a breakup, exploring memories and what-ifs, regrets and accusations, and especially the ways attachment can linger. Williams divorced Chad Gilbert, the guitarist of the emo band New Found Glory, in 2017 after nearly a decade and a year of marriage. “Flowers for Vases / Descansos” suggests that she’s still working things through on her own – away from her ex, away from her band.
“I’m scared of losing what’s left of you,” she sings on “First Thing to Go,” the album’s opening song, and adds wistfully, “I just finish my own sentences like you used to. ” In “Asystole” – the title is a medical term for heart failure – she sings: “I want to forget / But I can’t let go of the feeling.” In “KYRH” she puts on layers of wavy, minimalist piano chords and cello tones while she “Keep you right here ”and thinks about stasis. In “No Use I Just Do” she struggles with longings that she would rather push away. And in “Good Grief” she sings: “I’m pretty sure you won’t miss out on how I flaunt all my demons / to your pretty music.”
Williams recorded her pre-pandemic 2020 solo album “Petals for Armor” and worked with Paramore’s guitarist Taylor York as producer along with fellow songwriters and backup musicians. They helped Williams decisively break free of punk pop as she played with electronics, disco beats, shiny pop, jazzy subtleties, and indie rock introspection. The album was based on her talent for melody and her careful emotional balance: anger and self-criticism, insecurity and conviction. And while Paramore had occasionally allowed herself a ballad, Williams’ “Petals for Armor” emphatically proved that she didn’t have to scream.
“Flowers for Vases / Descansos” has a narrower, quieter palette, although Williams can easily handle guitars, keyboards, and drums himself. As on Taylor Swift’s 2020 quarantine albums, “Folklore” and “Evermore,” many of the songs have a folk acoustic guitar that was struck or selected. Williams opens a few tracks with excerpts from lo-fi demo versions that indicate the many steps between songwriting and recording. The songs on “Flowers for Vases / Descansos” are finely polished: every vocal phrase, every guitar note, every piano note and every studio effect was thought through by Williams and her engineer and producer Daniel James.
Williams’ pop-punk skills reappear in “My Limb,” which methodically depicts riffs on guitars and piano while imagining a breakup as an amputation: “If your part of me is gone now, do I want to survive?” She wonders.
But more often she starts songs as solo reflections and then tunnels them inward. “First Thing to Go”, a slow-sounding acoustic guitar waltz, collects floating voices and a syncopated electric guitar pull, with the parts flowing in like inescapable memories. “Inordinary” is almost rural as an opening statement – “I don’t want to be your girlfriend or just one of the boys / I’m nobody” – gives way to autobiographical memories of moving to Tennessee with her mother and meeting her soul mates in the band, while echoes and resonances float around them.
And in “Just a Lover” she rethinks most of her life, from growing up as a music fan to pouring out her problems for millions of listeners: “I feel my heart breaking, one final refrain.” The track begins with soft chimneys Piano chords, but builds up into an electric stomp, only to have Williams question her own path: “No more music for us. Or the masses, ”she sings, as full as anywhere on the album. “I know exactly what that is / or whatever it was.”
Your deep uncertainty is the last note on the album. At the same time, the music makes something very clear: lonely or not, she didn’t need these guys.
“Flowers for Vases / Descansos”