Paramore gambles on raw emotions
There's a certain serendipity to Paramore's opening slot on the upcoming and much-anticipated No Doubt return tour. Fans of the latter might remember the video for "Don't Speak," where No Doubt's three male members look daggers at bejeweled frontwoman Gwen Stefani as they're cropped out of a magazine shoot.
A similar thing might have happened over the last two years to Paramore. The young Tennessee pop-punk quintet vaulted into the charts on the strength of such buoyant singles as "Misery Business," the "Twilight" soundtrack cut "Decode" and their platinum-selling 2007 sophomore album "Riot!"
But Paramore's ochre-haired spitfire singer, 20-year-old Hayley Williams, inadvertently but understandably gleaned much of the spotlight during that rise. Her striking aesthetics and outspoken personality made her something of a tabloid regular, all while personal troubles brewed among her bandmates. Paramore canceled part of a European tour last year because of, as Williams said in a blog post, "internal issues that have been going on in this band for quite a while now," ones that they had to work on "at home and on our own terms."
"The room just got smaller and smaller as more people were looking on," Williams said on a couch in the home of producer Rob Cavallo, where the band is wrapping up tracking its as-yet-untitled third album. "You start to resent it, and a lot of that anger and emotion needed to come out, especially for me."
If there were doubts as to the band's future then, their forthcoming album should remedy them. The album is both about band members' grievances with one another, and a document proving they're finally past them.
If "How Do You Sleep?" was John Lennon's riposte to his time with Paul McCartney, the new track "Ignorance" might be Williams' version of the same. It's possibly the darkest and most precision-cut Paramore song, propelled by Zac Farro's horse-race drumming and the spidery guitar interplay of his brother, the band's chief arranger, Josh Farro. Yet atop it all, Williams is all venom, telling an unnamed male target that "Ignorance is your new best friend / I'm just a person but you can't take it."
For the rest of the band, which includes bassist Jeremy Davis and guitarist Taylor York, the power balance in the songwriting made realizing such barbed sentiments a trying but rewarding dynamic. "We were like, 'Sweet, every song is going to be about us,' " Josh Farro said. "We don't get to sing 'Hayley is such a jerk.' But it's cool because we trust Hayley to make it broader than just about our band."
For a group signed to a major label while its members were still in their teens, the band already has the mixed blessing of a few hugely recognizable hits. "Misery Business" was a delicious bit of schoolyard rival-baiting, and the suburban-gothic "Decode" adeptly evoked "Twilight" fans' longing to date a dashing vampire.
But the new "Exception" is entirely different for the band -- a blown-out pastoral ballad reminiscent of George Harrison or late-career Elliott Smith. In it, Williams draws parallels between witnessing the breakdown of a marriage and the end of a love affair. It's a moving, unsentimental take. "When I was young, I saw my daddy cry and curse at the wind / he broke his own heart, I watched as he tried to reassemble it," she sings, before turning inward. "I know you're leaving in the morning, but leave me with some kind of proof it's not a dream."
"I'll tell bands to go where they're scared to go, to a place of pain," said Cavallo. "I never had to say that to Hayley, because she's already there. There's every possibility this band will just get huge with this album."
Yet more mainstream popularity might exacerbate some of the problems that the band, and Williams in particular, had in the leadup to this album. Williams admits feeling "ridiculous that 90% of articles about us start with something about my size or my hair," a reality of Paramore's place in the public eye that's surely chafed her bandmates in the past.
But this album should do much to prove the fierce musicianship of the band and Williams' ambitions as a lyricist. In airing their youthful dirty laundry on record, Paramore might have made its most adult album yet.
"We're all human, and we just love to hurt each other," Williams said. "After seeing how relationships work, how do you trust somebody who's just as flawed as you are? It's kind of embarrassing, because it is so much of me in these songs, but that's what's beautiful about it. I'm growing up."
Photo credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times
This article will appear in The Times' Sunday Calendar (May 10).