Last year, Paramore’s lead singer Hayley Williams released the solo album she always insisted she would never make. Written as Williams settled into a cottage in Nashville and started afresh, ‘Petals for Armor’ was her most vulnerable work to date as she learned to exist alone in a couple of senses. Williams was making music separately from her pop-punk band Paramore for the first time while weathering the aftermath of divorce.
Striking out alone seemed to reinvigorate her – it was an album about wearing your flaws openly and using them as a means to make you stronger and, as a full-blown alt-pop record, sounded unlike anything else Williams has put her name to. And different again is ‘Flowers for Vases/descansos’ – which, according to the artist, serves as a kind of prequel to ‘Petals for Armor’. Created entirely solo and in lockdown at the artist’s Nashville home, the new record is more stripped-back, filled with acoustic guitar-led songs and sparse arrangements.
Undoubtedly, though, the two records are interlinked. As with ‘Petals for Armor’, it takes plenty of influence from Women Who Run With the Wolves, a collection of myths and stories about the archetypal idea of the “wild woman” filled with a potent rage. In that 1989 book, author and poet Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes about the symbolic descansos (small wooden crosses placed at the side of the road to mark the sites of fatal road accidents) scattered through women’s lives, marking violent or painful events. “Women have died a thousand deaths before they are twenty years old… They have hopes and dreams that have been cut off also,” Estés wrote. “Anyone who says otherwise is still asleep. All that is grist for the mill of the descansos.”
And on ‘Flowers for Vases/descansos’ Hayley Williams revisits her own personal descansos with plain-speaking candour. Though ‘Petals for Armor’ referenced autobiographical details too, they are cloaked in fewer metaphors here. On ‘Inordinary’ she sings directly about starting over in Tennessee aged 14 when she and her mother escaped Williams’ stepfather. “Came home from school one afternoon, she was waiting in the car for me,” she sings over spare, arpeggiated guitar, “she said ‘don’t worry.”
Many other songs are bittersweet, broken expressions of a love that won’t fade despite the instinct to bury it in a deep, secret place. In a meta moment on ‘Trigger’, Williams wonders aloud if she’s capable of making art from a place of peaceful contentment: “What do people sing about once they finally found it?” she asks. The reverberating strums of opener ‘First Thing to Go’ accompany Williams’ attempts to remember the past in vivid detail, and the strange sensation of somebody who once represented everything fading into a fainter memory with missing fragments. “First thing to go was the sound of his voice, it echoes still, I’m sure, but I can’t hear it,” she sings “…Heard what I wanted, until I couldn’t.”
Perhaps partly as a result of how it was created, ‘Flowers for Vases / descansos’ is less spiny and biting than her debut solo album. While that record brought to mind the intricacies of Thom Yorke and Warpaint, and burned with a simmering anger, this comes from a softer, more exposed place with Williams’ voice as its centrepiece. As if tugging up grubby fistfuls of dead weeds to make room for living things to flourish, ‘Flowers for Vases/descansos’ rakes back the debris and leaves Hayley Williams exposed. Sowing new seeds, it’s an approach that reaps rewards.
Release label: Atlantic Records
Release date: 5 February