As common of an occurrence as it may be, it’s hard to imagine any pop rock band attempting a complete new wave crossover without upsetting or alienating some fans. Even when this tone shift simply sees a band rein in the prominence of the guitars in their sound, as to make room for some bubbly synth basses and touches of other electronic embellishments, as opposed to any more substantial, structural upheaval, there is sure to be that one segment of the artist’s fanbase who will view such a change as a betrayal of all that which made their music valuable in the first place. Of course, such a reaction is inevitable from at least a portion of a group’s following, but when it came to the unveiling of Hard Times, the first single in over three years from pop punk darlings Paramore, despite signalling a synth-soaked sea change from the group’s usual brand of pop-driven emo music, the song was well-received by both critics and fans, with very few loud voices decrying it as selling out. The chances are unlikely that this was merely a result of Paramore’s fanbase being exceptionally faithful, rather it could largely be chalked up to the fact that Hard Times is an undoubtedly strong lead single for teasing towards a comprehensive stylistic shift, with Hayley Williams — who, to this day, remains the band’s salient point of appeal — accommodating this transformation by keeping the more fiery side of her vocal delivery in check, instead allowing her vocals’ sweet side to potently shine through. With this single’s follow-up, Told You So, being successful for similar reasons, it seemed as if Paramore may be able to pull off a significant alteration to their sound on their new record, After Laughter, and stick the landing, appeasing both critics and fans in the process. Now, with the album having landed and with me having taken far longer to digest After Laughter than I typically do with the records that I review, how do Paramore suit their new style?
Well, my reason for taking so long to finalise my thoughts on After Laughter in a review format simply resulted from the fact that I maintained continued mixed feelings for the album for quite some time, despite finding the group’s ability to acclimatise to this new sound rather impressive for the most part, and it took me a while to properly see through the optical illusions of After Laughter and put my finger on the underlying issues with the record. Ultimately, put as simply as possible, I would say that the synthpop sound Paramore pursue on this record does them justice, but whether or not they entirely do the style justice in return is another matter. Unequivocally, a bubbly electropop aesthetic suits the group well, but there nevertheless remains an overbearing feeling that Paramore didn’t take this new-found attitude to the lengths that they could have done, instead evoking many of the same archetypes that are routinely associated with the style. For instance, the duality alluded to on Hard Times, which sees the bouncy, playful timbre of the song juxtaposed against some relatively dark, or at least depressive, lyrical themes, is rather commonplace within the synthpop style at this point, and Paramore don’t do enough with this idea that is refreshing or interesting to make their transformation come across as fully-actualised. Overall, therefore, After Laughter is surely one of the better pop crossovers to come from the rock music camp thus far this year — although, it’s not as if bands like Linkin Park set a particularly high standard — but for a change of pace that seems to work so well, it’s a shame that Paramore didn’t take this sunnier, synthpop disposition to the heights that it could have reached.
Being the solid lead single that it is, it only makes sense for Hard Times to inaugurate many of the recurring musical and stylistic themes across After Laughter as the opening track and, most definitely, Paramore’s broadened sonic palette is firmly established here. Whilst the marimba melody and light taps of bongos that introduce the song are only fleeting, they nevertheless allude to the greatly expanded timbre of Paramore’s latest effort, which extends beyond simply substituting guitars for synths. Of course, however, as the main body of the track breaks out, the prominence of the buoyant bass in the mix, as well as the delicate guitar licks that are broken up with stabs of shimmering chords, point to the fact that even the band’s usual instrumentation assumes a hue more evocative of disco and dance-infused approaches towards pop and rock music, which is further fortified by the syncopation of the drum pattern during the chorus. With the electronic instrumentation, such as the squelchy synths and effects-laden backing vocals, being used more as some bright ornamentation for the piece, rather than as its driving force, the synthpop elements to Hard Times are undoubtedly prominent, but without being overpowering, with this degree of subtlety likely contributing a great deal to the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the song upon its initial release as a single. As previously stated, Hard Times, therefore, seems perfectly suited as a lead single and opening track for whetting the listener’s appetite and preparing them for the extent to which Paramore double-down on many of the ideas established on the track further into the album. With, for instance, Williams’ vocals being perhaps at their most dynamic at any point during the group’s discography on Hard Times, as she abruptly reaches for some playful shouts during the verses, the significantly more exuberant chanting that introduces the second song in the tracklisting, Rose-Colored Boy, which could have come as quite the surprise, instead simply seems fitting given the general tone of the record. Likewise, with the buzzy synth arpeggios being just as prominent in the mix as the clicky guitar chords and bouncy bass groove during the song’s main instrumental passage, such inclusions of electronic elements work themselves into the cut rather naturally, for the most part. Deeper into the tracklisting, as the band contrasts the watery, synthesized chimes of Pool against its phased guitar chords, or toys with entirely synth-focussed instrumental sections on Grudges, or even pursues some pure reggae fusion on Caught in the Middle, Paramore seem to utilise a relatively extensive approach that sees the group explore an admirable amount of ground within their newfangled aesthetic.
If there is one thing that holds Paramore’s adventurousness on After Laughter back, however, it is easily the production value, which, considering all the playful grooves and colourful arrangements that the band pursues across the course of the album, this same bounce and brightness unfortunately isn’t always to be found in the production. Although an especially extreme example, the mixing of the record’s penultimate track, No Friend, raises too many questions not to mention. With Williams’ vocals appearing nowhere on this cut, instead being completely replaced by Aaron Weiss of Philadelphian indie rock outfit mewithoutYou, it would seem as if the production would accommodate for the singer’s impassioned, partially spoken word vocal style accordingly, by giving it room in the mix to translate the emotional potency attempted in the lyrics. The choice, therefore, to, firstly, swamp Weiss’ vocals in some muffled mixing and, secondly, bury it underneath the rest of the instrumentation, to the point of being practically inaudible and more of an irritation than an addition to the track, is absolutely baffling. It almost seems as if Weiss’ vocal contributions were intended to merely act as a backing or supplementary addition to a regular performance from Williams’ that was, for one reason or another, left out of the final cut, with No Friend, as a whole, suffering, in that it comes across as an unfinished song that was accidentally picked up off the cutting room floor and slapped onto the backend of the album. Again, this is a particularly perplexing and radical example of the mixing from After Laughter and it isn’t representative of the way in which the production hurts the record, largely because the production doesn’t hurt the album more than it simply doesn’t meet the demands brought about by Paramore’s pursuit of a fully-fledged new wave crossover. Forgiveness, for example, sees the group going for a relatively mellow, slick indie pop slow-burner, whilst the production value simply doesn’t seem to fuel the cut with the impetus it needs to drive it forwards, rather there seems to instead be a looming feeling that the song is approaching some semblance of release that, ultimately, never materialises. As it happens, with Forgiveness being one of the more flat songs in the tracklisting from a structural perspective, gauging exactly how much of this feeling of a lack of momentum results from the production and how much arises from a somewhat sparse compositional approach is difficult. Even still, however, given just how much Paramore commit themselves to their fresh synthpop angle on their newest album, and the successful results they yield as both songwriters and performers for the most part, the production simply doesn’t match this level of vibrancy, which contributes significantly to the feeling that After Laughter isn’t as thorough of a crossover as it could be.
Undoubtedly, After Laughter comes together as one of the most graceful and devoted transitions by a rock group to a pop-orientated style in quite some time, and when taking a step back and appreciating the album as a whole, it genuinely seems as if Paramore went into the construction of this record with a clear vision for the way in which they wanted this crossover to pan out. This focus certainly pays off at points, with Hard Times, Rose-Colored Boy and Caught in the Middle marking some of the band’s most explosive and generally impressive songs to date, but there are nevertheless some obvious points of improvement that hold the album back from being the defining statement that it could have been. Unfitting production, as well as the use of certain customary synthpop tropes as somewhat of a compositional cushion to fall back on, impede on the depth that would have taken the record to the next level, in terms of the definitive identity it could have carved out for Paramore within the new paradigm in which they have placed themselves. Even still, at the very least, After Laughter has surely seen the group lay down the groundwork for what could most definitely develop into a fully-realised attitude towards their new-found aesthetic, and potentially, with more artistic growth, even install Paramore into the synthpop landscape as one of the style’s more comprehensive acts
The Vinyl Verdict: 6.5/10