Paramore Grows Up With ‘After Laughter’ — But Will Fans Follow?

If you thought you knew what pop-punk trio Paramore is about, the group’s long-awaited comeback single “Hard Times” and newly released follow-up “Told You So” — from the forthcoming fifth album “After Laughter” (due May 12 on Fueled by Ramen/Atlantic) — have likely knocked you for six. Three years on from the band’s last release, it’s a major departure. Renowned for singer Hayley Williams’ yelping choruses and Taylor York’s hugely distorted guitars, Paramore is usually associated with anxious anthems — no longer. “Not gonna hit rock bottom!” cries Williams at the end of “Hard Times.” Despite the song’s message (basically, when the going gets tough, the tough get going), Paramore has never sounded — or looked — more defiantly joyous.

That first video for “Hard Times” employs the coolest use of pastel-colored doodles since the “Saved by the Bell” opening credits, while the track’s production comes over like a late 2000s tropical club banger from former XL band Friendly Fires, as though sung by La Roux or Debbie Harry. There’s neon! There’s facepaint! There’s silly shimmying to camera! It’s matched today by “Told You So,” the video for which is less cartoonish but no less flirtatious, featuring the trio wearing matching red suits and rocking spikey guitars that — again — remind of British bands such as Foals and Bombay Bicycle Club. For many old fans — and pleasantly surprised new acolytes — the main question is: What’s happening here?

“Hard Times” in particular could be interpreted as a cri de coeur for our current socio-political age, particularly given a chorus that says “Hard times/ Gonna make you wonder why you even try.” Both songs, however, are deeply personal, documenting Williams’s psyche at her lowest ebb during the band’s continued uncertainty.

It hasn’t been an easy road for Paramore, which formed in 2004. “For all I know, the best is over and the worst is yet to come,” sings Williams on “Told You So.” For the band’s entire existence, it has been marred by legal disputes, quitting bandmembers and very public misunderstandings. All the while, Williams has remained the focal point, and her importance as a forthright frontwoman can’t be understated. She’s a bridge between fledgling punk acts and those who paved the way for her (the old guard of ’90s riot grrrls, and the likes of Gwen Stefani, Karen O, and Shirley Manson).The question of how to remain relevant to both demographics will likely weigh on Paramore’s mind. Between the lines, the real question posed by these new songs is: how does a band like Paramore grow up with — and without alienating — its devout fanbase?

Well, the reactions have come. Some hardcore fans are jumping on the “sell-outs!” train. Others, however, are bowled over the by the boldness of experimentation. One tweet said of “Hard Times:” “New Paramore song sounds like the music on crash bandicoot tbh” referring to the old PlayStation game. It’s truly that colorful.

Perhaps it’s selfishness that’s brought Williams to this point. “You can run on the fumes of being a teenager for as long as you want, but eventually life hits you real hard,” Williams told The New York Times recently. It’s written all over her face. She’s at her most approachable. Famed for sporting hair dyes that could kill, Williams has softened her edge with platinum bangs. Her body language is a more nimble form of kick-ass, compounded by a true self-assuredness.

Embittered purists might critique that going for pop gold is a cop-out — but it’s also a very hard move to pull off. “After Laughter” could be Paramore’s biggest rebellion yet. Renowned for heavily emotional, hardened, and jagged tunes such as “Still Into You” and “Misery Business” over the course of four albums, Paramore soundtracked the angsty teenage years of Warped Tour fans around the globe. Now they appear to be aiming to set themselves free from genre. Rock is definitely not the genre du jour right now. Yet Paramore’s new sound isn’t pop, either. With “After Laughter” set to drop on the same day as Harry Styles’ self-titled debut, it’s the one album landing on May 12 that could challenge the ex-One Direction pin-up. As the lead indicator, these tunes builds upon the more ambitious, experimental sounds of radio stalker “Ain’t It Fun” off their previous, self-titled LP, leaning on their crossover success (“Ain’t It Fun” won a Grammy for Best Rock Song).

Paramore’s greatest feat here is in their pursuit of lightness. Successfully nailing pop songs is a steep challenge, but Paramore have made it look easy, channeling an energy of relief, exasperation, and sheer happiness to be back. With another new lineup, it marks the return of original drummer Zac Farro, who quit the band in 2010, a sign that some friendships are worth fighting for. That resolution has likely added to the sonic confidence. When the end feels nigh, perhaps the only way to go is relocating that groove that made you want to be a band in the first place.

According to Williams’ Instagram, this is the most proud Paramore have ever been of an album. As when us normal folk have a bad day and go out for a great night with old pals, Paramore went to work, calling upon each other when they needed a shoulder to lean on. “After Laughter” sounds like it’s about when life kicks you in the gonads. Instead of crying about it, hopefully Paramore will come back fighting and chop life’s head clean off.

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