If someone told you Paramore would look the best out of their scene after a decade, would you believe them?
That’s not a dig, it’s just an honest look. In 12 years and 5 albums, Paramore have never had the same recording lineup twice; not only have members left or returned or changed roles, but those who leave do so in spectacular fashion. And yet, Paramore are in better shape now than anyone else in their age and weight class from the mid/late ’00s pop-punk scene because they still feel like themselves and sound contemporary. They’ve avoided common pitfalls, like decent commercial returns on terrible music, records that have no impact outside their pre-established fanbase, fucking off into the wilderness entirely, or breaking up. The attention paid to Paramore in 2017 is grounded in their current work, and not respect/appreciation for 7-10 year old singles.
Paramore’s survival hinged on how they dealt with the Farro brothers leaving in 2010. When you’re a riffs ‘n bash pop-punk group, losing your lead guitarist/riff writer and your drummer at once forces you to think outside the box, which is what happened on 2013’s Paramore (nothing says “Everything’s fine, we swear” after losing members like self-titling your next record). On that album, the band transitioned from an exceptionally peppy Warped Tour act to a studio pop rock group with New Wave and alternative rock flourishes, a move that, for me, solved Paramore’s biggest problem: their first 3 albums were each 4-6 great songs attached to a bunch of filler. More of the songs on the self-titled have a concrete identity, and even though it runs long, it still feels like their first legitimately great album.
The dirty little secret among emo-pop’s biggest crossover stars is that the scene needed them way more than they needed it. Singers as talented as Hayley Williams, Patrick Stump, and Brendon Urie were always going to be successful so long as an audience could find them; that those connections were made through MySpace pages and sharing mix cd space with The Academy Is… and Taking Back Sunday has ultimately shown to be secondary. Fall Out Boy recognized this first, tiptoeing for the sidedoor with 2008’s Infinity On High before slipping out the next year with Folie a Deux, and Panic! At the Disco exited with their transference from a multi-writer band to an Urie solo project. Paramore likely got the message when acoustic ballad “The Only Exception” became brand new eyes‘ biggest track instead of any of the album’s slash and burn ragers, and, as previously mentioned, the loss of lead guitarist Josh Farro had to be a motivator, as well.
After Laughter runs further afield of pop-punk, and instead pushes deeper into the glossy post-punk and New Wave influence seen on the self-titled. Although it doesn’t quite match that record’s highs, After Laughter finds a happy medium between the self-titled’s adventurousness and dexterity, and the sonic consistency of their pop-punk days. It’s shocking and maybe dispiriting at first, but the new sound on the record really fits (sidenote: for how much longer are we going to use “the 80s” or “80s-inspired” as shorthand for power-pop/synth-pop/post-punk/New Wave/etc? It made sense when Hot Fuss came out, but c’mon, that was 13 years ago, and that record’s directly or indirectly shaped a lot of modern, crossover aspiring rock; we can try a little harder). For one, Paramore v.2 emphasizes texture and melody over rocking out; songs like “Pool” here and “Daydreaming” on Paramore wouldn’t fit the mold on Riot! or All We Know Is Falling. For another, Williams has always been a wordy lyricist, and giving her lines room to breath only improves their effect. “I don’t need no one else/I can sabotage me by myself” gets to register on the airy bounce of “Caught in the Middle” in a way it probably wouldn’t if it was on something like “Ignorance.” In short, the genre shift has a point, instead of being shameless 80s humping because it’s the only thing the band has going for them.
It’s entirely possible that the genre jump would have gone over smoother if “Hard Times” wasn’t the lead single. The song eventually takes off, and the hook and lyrics are strong, but it’s also the jerkiest, most straightforward “We’ve listened to a lot of Talking Heads” pastiche on the album, and lacks (in very technical terms) Paramore-y oomph. It sticks after a few listens, and it in such as shit establishes the sound and aesthetic for After Laughter, but it’s not the opening shot anyone was expecting. Second song “Rose-Colored Boy” is much stronger overall, thanks to a playful bassline, chanting hook, and a killer melody; it seems like a no-brainer as an eventual single. It’s followed up by the nimble second single “Told You So,” a dramatic, slow-builder that would probably sound like “Monster” in Paramore V.1, but sashays instead of stomps.
Purely from a music perspective, a good chunk of After Laughter–songs like “Rose-Colored Boy,” maybe “Told You So,” “Fake Happy,” “Grudges,” “Caught in the Middle,” and “No Friend”–calls to mind The Strokes’ perennially underrated 2011 record Angles. There’s New Wave influence up and down both albums’ polished if slightly dry production, along with guitars that aren’t strummed as much as they are stabbed, and drummers instructed to play like drum machines. Paramore is a little more groove-oriented, but still, they’re both records with surprisingly intricate arrangements for how hard they aim for your pleasure centers. Hell, the two even have matching “mumbled, aggro-prog outliers” in “No Friends” and “You’re So Right.”
You hear the phrase “after laughter,” and one of the first places your mind goes is “it’s over,” which is the emotional through-line for this album. If Paramore was the upbeat, “new lease on life” journey that comes from your band persisting in the face of losing two founding members (drummer Zac Farro returned for AF), After Laughter is where you realize how everything’s effected you, and you ponder if going on is worth it. The darkness on this record has less to do with negativity or pessimism outright as much as it does the loss of optimism; “Rose-Colored Boy,” “Fake Happy” and “Hard Times” (just to pick a few) are about feeling beat down when you know you weren’t always like that, and even the album’s “I married Chad Gilbert” love song “Pool” equates love with drowning. But, there are lyrics along the way like “They say that dreaming is free/But I wouldn’t care what it cost me” from acoustic ballad “26,” and “We can’t keep holding onto grudges” from “Grudges” that imply maybe things can change, and so when closer “Tell Me How” ends on “I can still believe,” it feels earned.
It’s not something you’d expect from a (I guess former) pop-punk band, but After Laughter is kind of a cerebral grower of an album. There are enough immediate thrills to satisfy, but it takes a few spins to really appreciate what’s going on, especially on side 2. It feels like a slight step back from the self-titled since not quite everything works–“Forgiveness” and “26” ultimately feel inconsequential, and the mewithoutyou cameo on “No Friend” is a noble failed experiment–but it’s still a leg up overall from the band’s early albums. They escaped the scene, they escaped the arms race, but now, they’re learning to live with themselves.