From the outside looking in, Paramore’s fourth studio album was a triumph for the band. Released in 2013, the self-titled LP marked a critical turning point in their career, nabbing them a Best Rock Song Grammy for their gospel-infused hit, ‘Ain’t It Fun’, cementing them in pop-punk cannon, and giving them the chance to reintroduce their sound after multiple line-up changes. It wasn’t to be the case.
The sprawling, 17-track pop opus came three years after of the Nashville band’s members, brothers Josh and Zac Farro, the group’s guitarist and drummer, respectively, unceremoniously left the band following the release of ‘Brand New Eyes’ (2009). When the dust settled, vocalist Hayley Williams, guitarist Taylor York and bassist Jeremy Davis were the last three members standing.
Despite that drama – and Josh writing a detailed and bitter exit statement pointing to mistreatment from the label, a lack of shared values, and Williams as the reason for leaving – the shell-shocked trio went back into the studio, crafting a more mainstream, radio-friendly sound. But even that three-piece line-up would deteriorate following the release of ‘Paramore’, thanks to Davis exiting the band then suing for songwriting credits. While fans were singing along to some of Paramore’s highest Billboard charting hits, they were living through what Williams later described as “a dark season”.
I was one of those fans, belting the lyrics of ‘Ain’t It Fun’ while driving to work, singing each word like my life depended on it. From the outside looking in, 2013 was a triumph for me: I married my college sweetheart, got a shiny new gig at a tech company, and moved from the outskirts of town to an apartment in the city. I was following the rules of success and everyone could see I was succeeding, right? But in my car, teary-eyed and blaring the song’s choral-backed bridge, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the irony of being on my own “in the real world”, giving the steering wheel a firm shake as Williams let out the song’s last guttural rhetorical inquiry of “ain’t it fun”. Despite achieving everything I thought I should, there was an eerie inner itch that I was driving in the wrong direction.
Meanwhile, the creators of my existential soundtrack were dealing with their own “emotionally exhausting” reckoning. During her NME cover story in 2020, Williams outlined the contrast between outward perception and what the band was actually experiencing. “From the outside, ‘Paramore’ was our most successful record,” she said. “We won a Best Rock Song Grammy for ‘Ain’t It Fun’ and I got engaged – all this insanely cool shit was happening.” But despite those milestones, she was left feeling empty. She even admitted to secretly quitting the band two years into the album cycle.
‘Paramore’ with its upbeat tracks, like the saccharine love song, ‘Still Into You’, does an excellent job of masking those fraught emotions that were taking place behind the scenes. But listening back in hindsight, you can hear hints of turmoil. Take the distorted, gritty guitar track ‘Now’, as Williams spills out the words, “Wish I could find a crystal ball / For the days I feel completely worthless” before grasping for a way to enjoy the good over the bad, as she repeats, “Don’t try to take this from me”.
Even the album’s bright rock opener, ‘Fast In My Car’, outlines an inner struggle as Williams sings, “Much as we try to pretend / No one’s as innocent as could be / We all fall short, we all sin.” As a whole, ‘Paramore’ is a testament to the ups and downs of what success feels like in comparison to what it looks like, a time-capsule of the wide range of feelings the band experienced in the lead up to their “worst year”.
In the months following their self-titled album’s release, Paramore would fall apart and reconstruct again. Zac Farro returned in time for 2017’s ‘After Laughter’, and the band found forgiveness and more cohesion than ever. Then, they took an indefinite break to focus on their mental health. Williams got divorced and went to therapy, York stopped drinking and Farro focused on photography. They also released music through solo projects and took the time to find out who they were outside of the band. During that time away, the songs from their “darkest” era, would reemerge online, with ‘Still Into You’ amassing millions of listens on TikTok in 2021 and finding new life as a viral hit. In 2022, they released their first new music in five years. In the first week of ‘This Is Why’s release, the album hit No. 1 across multiple Billboard Charts, and reached No. 1 in the UK. Despite their numerous detours in different directions, they eventually landed where they wanted to be.
I took a similar route, though with fewer No. 1 hits. I got divorced and went to therapy. I screamed along to the band’s sardonic 2017 hit ‘Hard Times’ while dancing alone in my living room. I took time away from the corporate climb to find out who I was outside of my job title. I went freelance and began writing about music. I detached from the idea of success in other people’s eyes and realised that career-defining moments rarely feel the same way on the inside as they look on the outside. I ended up where I wanted to be.
Last year, Paramore changed the cover of their self-titled album on streaming services. The original version displayed Williams, York and Davis against a contrasting black background, covered in splashes of colourful paint. Now, the album artwork shows a solo photo of Williams, her back facing out towards us, the viewer, donning a denim jacket, with the title of their track ‘Grow Up’ scrawled across her jacket in white spray paint. Though removing Davis may have been a not-so-subtle dig at their former bassist, the new visuals also point to the band’s change in perspective 10 years on.
Listening to Paramore’s latest music now, like the bubbling, self-aware single ‘Running Out Of Time’, their maturity and experience bursting through on their most self-actualized album to date, my perspective on the last decade shifts too. I realise that embracing the detours and road bumps were the only way to get to where I wanted to go, and that hindsight could only come with time and the ability to “grow up”. Now, when I look back at myself a decade ago, crying at the steering wheel and wondering where I was going, I realise I was heading in the right direction all along.