As top 10 singles go, Paramore’s “Ain’t It Fun” is a doozy. Loud, thudding drums accompany a percussive hook that starts on xylophone, crosses over to spiky rhythm guitar, and introduces a verse in which the band’s lead singer and righteous firecracker Hayley Williams doesn’t so much sing as cheerlead. Xylophones return during the chorus, and by the second verse the guitar has joined them, soaring efficiently and spectacularly. Sparkly keyboards integrate so seamlessly that you might not notice their presence. Halfway through, a gospel choir sings a playground taunt. Behold — pumped-up arena-rock swallows a dozen genres, shuddering as its muscles double in size, and roars, “What are ya gon! na! do!” When she belts, “Ain’t it fun to be on your own / ain’t it good you can’t count on no one,” she means it. “Ain’t It Fun” is the rare song to endorse adulthood, maturity, struggle effectively, and make it sound like a blast. Released as a single a year after its self-titled parent album, 2013’s Paramore, came out, “Ain’t It Fun” sounded top-heavy and out of place on the radio, but gratifyingly so. Few contemporary hits roll and crash so exuberantly.
Four years later, their new album, out since May, lives up to the glory of “Ain’t It Fun.” Paramore started as a nominal pop-punk band, like many others on the Fueled By Ramen label — committed, since their first few albums, to the intersection of songcraft and guitar noise, while walking the line between the rousing and the whiny. Elegant, light on its feet, overflowing with fizzy froth, the new After Laughter is no such animal: this is pop, no suffix needed. To reproduce the chart success of Paramore, the band’s priorities regarding defiance and cheerfulness have adjusted to favor the latter, their rebel yells morphed into breezy hooks. As a career move, After Laughter resembles Taylor Swift’s 1989, performing a similar exchange of guitars for synthesizers, and epic for smart miniature. The difference is that while 1989 and its immediate predecessor, the guitar epic Red, stand as twin crown jewels, After Laughter improves substantially on Paramore, a thing of frustrating ponderosity occasionally dotted with terrific songs (“Ain’t It Fun”, “Still Into You”, “Last Hope”). Anyway, synth-inflected power pop beats headbanging power pop any day. Paramore’s martial drums and jagged guitar slam down with a joyless bluntness that dulls the melody, matching the ardor in Williams’s singing and songwriting with textbook examples of a redundant musical correlative. Given After Laughter’s lighter textures, its expanded range of fruity guitar sounds, and the colorful shades of neon pastel illuminating the synthesizers, its anthems skip, hop, and snap into massive choruses that rock with paradoxically unexpected force.
The new album’s keyboard polish will no doubt prompt an ‘80s revival tag, but any slick surface these days is bound to inspire ‘80s comparisons. Eighties revival (meaning when?) has become its own genre, unconcerned with the actual period. Critics use the term indiscriminately to describe any pop album they like; they think they’re allowed to like pop as long as it’s nice and respectable and historically aware. But After Laughter is so much stylistically weirder and so much more batshit. Its punchy power pop has broadened, daubing power chords with a range of wacky elements: xylophone; marimba; breathy backup vocals; lanky string arrangements; splashes of synthesizer gloss; bubblefunk rhythm guitar; and foregrounded African highlife riffs, of all things, with that high, clear, trebly guitar sound (is this the ‘80s influence in question?). Their odd embrace of tropical flavors recalls tropical house less than Jens Lekman’s similar move on the recent Life Will See You Now; such emotional brightening requires a sunnier musical style. “Pool” syncs up a series of plinky, descending, dissonant and/or slightly delayed marimba figures with a crunchy rhythm guitar, while a calming string progression intervenes, intermittently, to balance the nervous pace. The spellbound chorus, describing a riptide that may also be a lover, strengthens the song’s inexorable pull. “Told You So” soars over spidery Afropop guitar and excitable drums as Williams’s voice slips between unadorned yell and robotic vocoder. “Rose Colored Boy” and “Fake Happy” both pair chirpy synthfunk verses with big, loud choruses and slammed guitars. The plastic rhythmic strum in “Rose Colored Boy” and the wavy keyboard zigzags in “Fake Happy” playfully tease at the chorus before swelling cathartically up into it. There’s an inspirational energy to this music they’ve never captured before. Sugary textures demand a mood and material to match.
“Rose Colored Boy” and “Fake Happy” are illustrative examples. I count two central dialectics on After Laughter. The obvious one contrasts cheerful music with the anxiety depicted in Williams’s songwriting. “Rose Colored Boy,” for all its upbeat charm, asks said boy to “just let me cry a little bit longer,” while in “Fake Happy” Williams confesses that her cheer is constructed, an admission that applies to the superficially cheerful song itself and how she sings it, a comment on the nature of her own performance. The subtler contrast is between the verses and chorus — between pop and anthemic modes. Williams’s instincts favor the inspirational rocker — huge, inflated songs featuring homilies she can scream at the top of her lungs. Her yelled enthusiasm often substitutes colloquial declamation for conventionally melodic singing. Note how she snaps the final syllable in “I’m right at the end of my rope” in “Rose Colored Boy,” or, in “Fake Happy”, how she punctuates “If I smile! / with my teeth! / (ah!)” with a hissed exhalation, as if grinning to reveal her incisors. Note which syllables she stresses, exclaiming “You hit me with lightnin!” in “Hard Times.” Her lyrics, too, cultivate an almost unacceptable level of simplicity, as when she repeats “I hate to say I told you so / they love to say they told me so” a billion times in “Told You So,” or when, in “Caught in the Middle”, she hollers “I’m just a little bit caught in the middle / gotta keep going or they’ll call me a quitter” in the somewhat flat chorus. On previous albums, when distorted riffage signaled candid personal expression, Paramore were direct to the point of perfunctory. Thud, go the drums and guitars, yeah, wails the singer as she communicates everything she intends to and no more. She needed lightening bad; she needed to get hit with lightnin! After Laughter recontextualizes the band’s directness with an album’s worth of playful sonic nudges. As a sound, they invented their sweet, fluffy, tropical-esque style out of thin air, but it still codes pop, a tightly formalized hook machine. This is a context in which directness can devastate. Choruses that once thrashed around now glide airborne, crunching down hard on the buoyant beat. Williams, whose defiance once seemed routine, now glows as she belts these quasi-anthems, inspirational because anthems are not all they mean to be. The resulting album packs uncanny grandeur and emotional power.
After Laughter glitters and dazzles, stomps and sizzles, dances on your toes and rocks you on home. They haven’t just made a great pop-rock album as that term is usually understood — they’ve actively combined presentationally functional and expressive modes. That is, pop and rock. It’s a rare, impressive, old-fashioned achievement, and it suits them.