We know, we know, Paramore isn't just Hayley Williams. Paramore is a band. But when every roiling, addictive album is directly fueled by the discord of yet another lineup change, you start to wonder: Should the hole left by the most recently departing bandmate be considered an official member of the band?
It's a thought you can't help but mull over listening to Paramore's crackling fifth full-length album, 2017's After Laughter. The lineup this time features Williams, guitarist Taylor York (a member since their 2007 sophomore effort Riot!) and original drummer Zac Farro, returning after an estrangement since 2010. Notably not present here is bassist Jeremy Davis, who left for the second time in a huff of legal disturbances in 2015. The first time Davis left was immediately preceding the band's 2006 debut, All We Know Is Falling -- an album ultimately devoted to the struggle and strife of his departure (though he ultimately rejoined for Riot!). Paramore also famously came close to disbanding after Riot!'s breakthrough success, with Farro and his brother, guitarist Josh Farro, disliking, apparently, the intense focus on Williams. That conflict directly informed 2010's Brand New Eyes, with the Farro brothers leaving in a dust cloud of public smack-talk afterward. The sturm und drang of the Farro s departure became the theme of the band's massively successful 2013 eponymous album, which found Williams, Davis, and York playing as a trio. But Davis eventually became unhappy with that record's royalty split and left the group to sue them. Which brings us to the "Never Say Die" theme of After Laughter, an album that proves one thing above all else: Paramore thrive amid conflict.
Again working with producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen, Paramore churn out anthem after infectious anthem, each euphorically designed to grab you where it counts -- melodically and emotionally. Where 2013's Paramore found the group tentatively transitioning from their pop-punk roots toward a multi-layered '80s synth-pop sound, After Laughter reveals them having beautifully completed the transformation. Much credit here goes to York, who co-wrote all of the songs and whose deft guitar and keyboard make up much of the album's distinct aural character. But of course, Williams still beats at the center of everything, her voice providing the album's warm, exuberant core. Tracks like the lead-off disco-tinged "Hard Times" and crisply attenuated "Told You So" are earworms rife with DayGlo marimba and icy adult-contempo synths. Elsewhere, Williams weaves in the arpeggiated warmth of the Cure's "Friday I'm in Love," on "Grudges," and evinces Diva-era Annie Lennox on "Forgiveness.”
Despite the album's buoyantly pastel new wave tones, it unsurprisingly contains a truckload of hard-won maturity and a growing sense of battle fatigue. You hear it on virtually every track, particularly on the yearning closer "Tell Me How" ("I'm getting sick of the beginnings"). Ultimately, each Paramore album thus far has been more or less another triumphant battle cry of a band having fought and survived a breakup. But After Laughter intersects this with transcendence: the realization that life is an ongoing series of new beginnings. ~ Matt Collar