A bittersweet truth of this pandemic, among many, is that the “quarantine album” has rapidly become its own genre. While the music industry as a whole has had to make do with recording albums remotely during lockdown for the past year, a distinct sonic concept for many of these releases has emerged: emotionally raw, the creation of one or a few people in a home studio, often described as “acoustic,” even as layers of synths and reverb contribute to the feelings of isolation. (Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago was a pre-Covid-19 predecessor in more ways than one.) Admittedly, with the exception of Taylor Swift’s “Folkmore” duo, examples of these albums are still few and far between on major labels; how many will be released in the months and years ahead, outside of Bandcamp profiles, remains to be seen.
With that said, Hayley Williams has codified what a top-to-bottom quarantine album can sound like with her latest LP, Flowers for Vases/descansos, released this past Friday via Atlantic. It’s her second solo album outside of her long career as the lead singer for Paramore, and her second one in less than a year: She put out her debut, the eclectic and Björk-inspired Petals for Armor, in three parts last spring. Unlike Petals, or any other album she’s been a part of, Williams recorded Flowers entirely on her own — singing all the harmonies, playing all the instruments — at her home in Nashville, seeking outside help only from producer Daniel James and engineer Carlos de la Garza.
Flowers mines similar material to Petals — most prominently, Williams’ separation from New Found Glory guitarist Chad Gilbert. But the album takes on a decidedly different tone than that of its frenetic predecessor with the appendix title “descansos,” meaning “rest” in Spanish. (Incidentally, a botanical garden near Los Angeles, where Williams previously lived, also takes its name from the word.) What it all comes out to is a lot of soft guitar playing, and a lot of murmuring into the microphone. “No one can hold your hand now/Through the delicate darkness,” Williams sings on “Find Me Here,” her stadium-ready voice reduced to a tone that you’d use in an unfamiliar church.
“Delicate” is the best way to describe Flowers, for you won’t find the explosive dance numbers that punctuated Petals and, more often than not, provided Williams’ most insightful outlooks on what she’s survived and how much she’s grown. Instead, Flowers removes that distance, placing the listener into the heart of Williams’ past grief as she experienced it in her most vulnerable state. In one song, she compares her ex-partner to a limb that’s been severed from her body, begging, “If you gotta amputate/Don’t give me the tourniquet.” In others, she parses through plain, intimate details — boxes left at her parents’ houses, sex dreams she’d rather forget — that feel jarringly naked after the sensory metaphors on display in Williams’ past songwriting (“Cinnamon,” “Roses/Lotus/Violets/Iris”).
As a quarantine-driven detour on Williams’ artistic path as a solo act, Flowers works as a side project, although its commitment to confessional storytelling and stripped-down production the whole way through will make it appear one-noted against Petals. When Williams finally breaks out the amplifier and booming drum kit on the great closer, “Just a Lover,” you’re left wondering what other sounds and textures she could have created while stuck inside her living room. There’s still time — an inordinate amount of time — for her to explore.