As much as Hayley Williams showcases the strength and versatility of her singing voice on her debut solo album Petals For Armor, one of its most memorable moments comes in the form of a voice memo at the beginning of the song ‘Dead Horse’. “Alright, it took me three days to send you this, but… Uh, sorry, I was in a depression,” the Paramore singer confesses as a jaunty melody rises to the surface, her dog barking in the background. “But I’m trying to come out of it now,” she adds before the drums kick in, and the song unfolds into an upbeat, funky tune that wouldn’t have felt out of place on Paramore’s 2017 record, After Laughter, which juxtaposed the bright, bubbly sounds of 80s synth-pop with lyrics that confronted Williams’ struggle with mental illness.
But if After Laughter was playful enough to tackle those hardships with a slight smirk – on the lead single ‘Hard Times’, Williams signs off with the line “And I gotta get to rock bottom” – Petals for Armor is more candid though still triumphant in its exploration of the interminable lows that come with battling depression. That voice memo perfectly encapsulates the emotional arc of the record – first, there’s the intimacy of opening up to a friend, then the vulnerability of admitting you’ve been in a bad place, and finally, the confidence that it might just get better. Originally released as a three-part EP, Petals for Armor affords Williams the necessary space to make a truly personal record that dives into and mirrors the complexities of recovery in a way that a Paramore record couldn’t – despite the fact that her fellow band members contributed to the making of the album, most notably guitarist Taylor York, who serves as the producer, it’s Williams’ personality that always remains at the center.
Rather than exploring depression, though, ‘Dead Horse’ actually turns out to be a song addressing the other big cloud hanging over Petals for Armor – that of divorce. The result of a tumultuous 10-year-relationship that left Williams feeling both shame and betrayal, it’s a subject the singer had previously shied away from discussing, and her voice is barbed with an almost liberating sense of indignation as she sings: “When I said goodbye, I hope you cried.” It’s clear her attitude has changed since the beginning of the record – on the second verse of opener ‘Simmer’, whose title very much fits the mood the track, Williams opens up about how her insecurities affected the relationship, implying that even now, she has the tendency to blame herself for the way things ended. If she had seen herself as “something more precious”, she sings, “He would’ve never.”
As the album progresses, though, Williams reaches the realization that seeing herself as worthy is something she owes no one but herself. This is most evident on the cleverly poetic ‘Roses/ Lotus/ Violet/ Iris’, a feminist ode to individuality that upturns the familiar “roses are red” structure into a chorus that repeats the word “roses” to insinuate that a flower can grow independently of other flowers. “And I will not compare/ Other beauty to mine/ And I will not become/ A thorn in my own side,” she proclaims on the bridge. The fact that the track features boygenius, aka Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus, only renders the message of claiming one’s individuality all the more potent, especially as these artists are often lumped into the same category of “female indie songwriters”.
As Williams acknowledges the complexities of her own self, Petals for Armor blossoms into its own multi-faceted flower. While there is a sense that sonically, the album picks up where After Laughter left off – it is a pop album, after all, much to some fans’ dismay – there’s also more variety than one might initially expect. The restrained guitar line on ‘Leave it Alone’ has a Radiohead circa In Rainbows vibe to it, while ‘Sudden Desire’, which finds Williams getting more in touch with her sexuality, is reminiscent of Post-era Björk. She sounds even more like Björk on the ecstatic ‘Watch Me While I Bloom’, where she shows off the dynamism of her voice before the track blooms into another synthpop jam. And if that weren’t enough, there’s even a hint of jazz on the song ‘Taken’.
But perhaps the most successful experiment here is the one where Williams has the most fun, which is undeniably the track ‘Cinnamon’ – an infectious tune about living alone after moving to a new house that, as you can imagine, hits especially hard during this period. But Williams manages to find comfort, even pleasure in being alone. “Home is where I’m feminine,” she coos atop layers of processed vocals, different versions of herself. But as a woman in a male-dominated scene, it’s the feminine side that has been repressed the most, and here, she allows herself to embrace it fully.
Unfortunately, not all songs feel as revelatory or exciting. ‘Over Yet’ tries to be an uplifting pop punk anthem but ends up being too generic in its portrayal of mental illness, especially compared to the rest of the tracklist, while the third part of the LP is overall not as strong as the first two. Had it been cut down to its most essential songs, the nearly hour-long Petals for Armour would feel a bit less meandering and more focused, even if perhaps it wouldn’t be as true in its depiction of self-growth. But the album certainly succeeds in setting out the stage for Williams as a compelling solo artist, one whose dynamic range and multidimensional personality can no longer be ignored.