On September 21, over three months after Paramore released its critically acclaimed album After Laughter, Hayley Williams posted a mirror selfie. I saw that selfie as I was scrolling through Instagram, and immediately noted (and appreciated) her gold, glittery tear streaks of makeup and the way she pointedly stared at her reflection.
this is actually a post about @colormebrian: . . when you go thru (im sooo sorry) "hard times"… you may not feel like yourself. no confidence, maybe you lose or you gain weight, your body may revolt against you in weird ways you never knew it could, etc… and sometimes you just need a friend to show you that you're still you and you're still worth the effort. thanks Brian, for making me feel worth it and for helping me express where im at thru makeup/fashion/& hair – especially this year. on this particular day my skin was extra broken out, i was dead tired (from life & no sleep) but when i got outta his chair, i felt like a friggin peach. i don't deserve a friend like you Brian. the looks💃🏼 are only the sparkley surface of our friendship. . . expression is survival, ppl.
After reading the caption and then looking at the photo a second time, I thought I noticed a weariness in her eyes, tension in her posture. The little signs of someone who was going through substantial emotional and mental distress, but was doing what they needed to get by. She was surrounding herself with good people that would remind her that she needed to love herself and heal.
It was in that moment I finally decided to give her band’s new album a full listen.
Paramore dropped After Laughter on May 12th, and to be blunt, I was in a pretty bad place on May 12th. I was shell-shocked from a series of events I won’t go too far into, and I was in denial about a lot of the choices I had made that had put me in the place that I was in. Some people close to me were telling me I needed to take time to work through my emotions and do some self-reflecting to heal, while others were telling me that I needed to get over it and focus on the good things in my life.
So I listened to the people in the latter category, and told myself that I was fine and that I had spent enough time working through my feelings. It was time to appreciate what I had and keep chugging along like nothing had happened. Because of this outlook, I found the new Paramore music suffocating and dull. I didn’t have time for that kind of negativity, and why would I when life was filled with so much promise?
The next month and half I kept that same mindset, and I lost count of how many times I had to run to the bathroom or my bedroom to put my head in my hands and be upset in solitude. The times I would wake up in my own bed, or sometimes a bed that wasn’t my own, and fight the urge to run out the door and get in my car and drive somewhere far away. Each time I would wipe my tears away, force myself to think of all my life blessings, chastise myself for letting my emotions get to me, and pick myself back up with a manically positive outlook on my life. Which would last for at most a day.
And then on a weekend in early July, I hit a wall. I briefly put myself in a social situation I wasn’t ready to handle for a vast number of reasons, and I spent the following two days shut in my room, playing video games, leaving only for the fridge or the bathroom. I kept myself away from people and my phone. At the time I considered it a moment of defeat, a spell of weakness. I finally gave in and dwelled for hours about how awful my life was, all the poor choices that put me in this state, and how really I wasn’t ok. Not at all.
A few days later I sat at my laptop and typed up a list of things I needed to do to improve my life. I made a tentative plan of how I wanted the rest of the year to go. And from there, week by week, my life improved. I broke down less. I smiled more. Good things started to happen, but not because I searched for them, because in the process of working through my issues life reminded me of the blessings I had. I realized I wasn’t ok, I wasn’t where I wanted it to be, and once I started figuring out how to make myself ok again, my future seemed a lot brighter and not as cloudy and dark.
“After Laughter” doesn’t mean after the good times. It means after you stop acting like everything is perfectly fine when it’s definitely not. It’s when you’re no longer laughing too loudly at people’s jokes, and smiling too wide when somebody asks how you are and you respond with a robotic ‘I’m hanging in there, not too bad for a Tuesday!” Because when you let yourself face your sorrow and pain, you give yourself the opportunity to move through the thick, sludgy desolation and start to heal.
So, on After Laughter, Hayley Williams proudly celebrates her despair. It’s in the dissonant brilliance in the instruments around her, as she spits stark, despondent lyrics. It’s how she pours bitterness into the piercingly bright choruses of “Hard Times,” “Told You So,” and “Rose Colored Boy,” angry as hell at the misfortune life keeps throwing at her and hostile towards people that dare to celebrate when she’s suffering.
Some of the most powerful moments on the album aren’t when Hayley’s striking outward, but when she’s cutting inward. In the midst of brazenly seething at someone who’s wronged her in the chorus of “Forgiveness,” she admits her fragility even in her anger, harmonizing softly “I can barely hang on to myself, I can’t give you, I can’t give you that. I’m afraid that I’ll have nothing left.”
In “26,” she breaks through her own anguish to gently remind herself to dream of happiness, even when life tears her down. The symphonies and acoustic guitar cut to silence as she sings sweetly “so let it break your heart,” a gorgeous plea to embrace the pain in life, but to do so only so you can find hope again. On album closer “Tell Me How,” she delivers one of the most brutally introspective lines of the entire record, “you know I got my own convictions, and they’re stronger than any addiction.” After Laughter is a roller-coaster of self-loathing scattered with moments of self-love, and Hayley lays it all bare for her listeners.
I was finally able to listen to After Laughter on September 21st because I had started to fully embrace where I was in my journey towards finding myself. I recognized that I was painfully unhappy with how things were, and that the way I was living was toxic for many reasons. There’s a certain confidence that comes with accepting the bad in order to start building towards the good. It’s a kind of serenity that you get when you strip away all of your frenzied attempts to pretend your lifestyle is meaningful so that you can start to see yourself for who you are, and from there be able to work towards who you want to be. When I finally allowed myself to listen to this album and understand its message, I understood that I was on the road to finally being ok. Things were better, and they were going to continue to get better.
So in it’s own way, After Laughter is more optimistic than any other album the rock-pop outfit has released thus far. Its lyrics might on paper read as the band’s most depressing, but in reality they highlight a critical point of a healing process that’s so rarely delved into in music, especially pop music. Hayley and the Paramore crew have created a body of work that speaks to those that need to know that life sometimes needs to not be ok for it to finally become ok, that rock bottom is where you pick yourself up and move forward to better days because you have to, not because your sister or your best friend clapped you on the back and said “stop moping, life isn’t shit it’s great!” That’s a level of art that not many musicians these days can create.