Paramore’s giant hooks and soaring vocals have often been accompanied by a withering worldview – their rip-roaring breakthrough single “Misery Business” was a poison-pen letter to a romantic rival, while “Ain’t It Fun,” the Top Ten single from their 2013 self-titled album, blended the gospel-assisted bounce of “Like a Prayer” with a firm trust-no-one stance. The tension between sugar-spun pop hooks, the acrobatic soprano of lead singer Hayley Williams and an arm’s-length take on the world has placed Paramore at the head of music’s post-millennial class. They simmer on After Laughter, their first album since that 2013 offering and their reunion with drummer Zac Farro, whose acrimonious departure from the band in 2010 presaged their fuller turn from the rock world into pop.
What “pop” can be in 2017 is open to question, and on After Laughter Paramore thankfully decides to junk large chunks of the concept as it’s currently practiced. (“I can’t imagine getting up there and playing a Max Martin song – at that point we might as well just stop,” guitarist Taylor York told The New York Times in April, shortly after the album was announced.) Instead, they embrace “pop” as a musical vibe, with a record that’s so sunshine-bright it gives off a glare at times, rooted in fleet basslines and beats made for open-road drives and solo bedroom dance parties. The hooks are big and the detailing is sublime, at times borrowing from unexpected sources. York’s highlife-inspired arpeggios add bursts of color to the manic “Told You So” and the freestyle-jam-in-disguise “Hard Times”; “Rose-Colored Boy” nicks its swinging synthpop from Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche 85 arsenal; “Pool” shimmers like a mirage on a blazing day, its countermelody recalling a Doppler-ed ice-cream truck’s chime. The ballad “26” sighs into its lush strings, an older-and-wiser version of the twangy 2009 track “The Only Exception.” “No Friend,” the menacing second-to-last track that lets Williams off the hook on vocal duties and hands the mic to MeWithoutYou frontman Aaron Weiss before burying him in a cacophony of rumbling bass and frantic guitars, has a persistent lightness.
But while the surfaces of After Laughter might glint, Hayley Williams’ lyrics evince a weariness that makes that brightness seem garishly empty. “All that I want/Is to wake up fine,” she sings on the opening salvo “Hard Times,” a track that also shouts out “My little rain cloud/Hanging over my head.” Things don’t get much sunnier from there – fake friends abound; “26” pivots on a vision of love that’s assuming eventual doom; “Idle Worship” rides its titular homonym to comment on fame. Williams’ voice is in gorgeous form, providing even more of a contrast to the stunning acridity of lyrics like “I’m gonna draw my lipstick wider than my mouth/And if the lights are low they’ll never see me frown,” from the gently rolling “Fake Happy.”
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After “No Friend,” where Weiss shouts doom-and-gloom metaphors from beneath the band’s noisy rubble, After Laughter comes down with “Tell Me How,” a stutter-step ballad that allows Williams’ voice to curl around and into expressions of anxiety that sound impossible to quiet. It’s a fitting closer for After Laughter, a gorgeously produced, hook-studded record with cocked-eyebrow trepidation adding a jittery edge – a combination that’s very of-the-moment in 2017, even if it veers outside of pop’s rigid lines.