The opening track of Petals for Armor, the debut solo record from Paramore frontwoman Hayley Williams, feels like a deep sigh. Rage is a quiet thing, she sings, over a tapestry of breaths and hums. Rage... is it in our veins?
The album is a release in multiple senses of the word for Williams. Its her first record without the band that made her famous when she was still a teenager (though her bandmates, Taylor York and Joey Howard, worked with her on the writing and recording of the album, this project stands apart from their work as a unit). Emotionally and lyrically explicit, Petals for Armor touches on raw nerve after raw nerve: the breakdown of her marriage, her grandmothers declining health, and the inherited trauma that has been passed down through the women in her family. Every woman in my family on my moms side... theyve all been abused in almost every sense of the word, she told The New York Times. She began writing the album after entering intensive therapy for the first time, and being diagnosed with depression and PTSD. Trauma echoes through the lyrics, which often speak specifically to women. I think of all the wilted women/ Who crane their necks to reach a window, she sings on Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris.
The albums opening note of rage feels, coincidentally, in conversation with another album released this month. Torontonian synth-pop artist Katie Stelmanis, better known under her band name Austra, opens her fourth album HiRUDiN with the words: You make me so angry. Her previous record, Future Politics, written pre-Brexit and pre-Trump, was a contemplation of power structures in the outside world, but on HiRUDiN, she turns the lens back on herself, writing about the breakdown and aftermath of toxic relationships, and internalised queer shame. HiRUDiN came out of a lot of feelings of disappointment that I was able to channel into new forms of optimism, she tells me. Namely, the importance of healing the self, and how that can actually be a powerful tool in terms of broader activism and politics.
Sharing the full story, not just the headlines
Petals for Armor and HiRUDiN both exist in a lineage of albums by women reckoning with their pain; Stelmanis nods to Bjorks Vulnicura and FKA twigss MAGDALENE as recent examples of break-up albums that rocked her, and Williams made a playlist of inspirations for her album that included the very vulnerable work of Solange, Beyonce, and SZA. But Petals for Armor and HiRUDiN also share a lightness and an optimism that envisions not only a way out of that pain, but a meaningfulness to it. As Williams said in Rolling Stone last month, I dont think you can get to the good s*** without digging through the bad first. Its like you are trying to find the centre of the Earth how can you find that without cracking through limestone and heavy, hard things?
Ever since the #MeToo movement began in 2017, there has been the question of what its musical legacy will be. There have been angry songs, vengeful songs, satirical songs that have seized on the cultural mood. But a more satisfactory result could be more women, and victims of toxicity and abuse of any gender, feeling able to write honestly about their trauma without making it the focal point of their identity.
The music industry has never had its full-blown #MeToo moment, but Kesha came closest to sparking one when she sued her former producer and manager Dr Luke for alleged sexual and physical abuse in 2014, in a legal battle that is ongoing (he denies her claims). In 2017, Kesha released Rainbow, a cathartic purge of an album; but it was with High Road, released in January, that she reclaimed her party girl identity while celebrating her survival. Though miles away in sound, theres echoes of the liberatory urging of Fiona Apples Fetch the Bolt Cutters an album title that is also becoming a kind of zeitgeist-capturing mantra, encouraging women to cut themselves out of their cages and shout about their realities.
Apples album is unflinching, with lines such as, You raped me in the same bed/ Your daughter was born in. But its also a loose-limbed, defiant dance party, laced with frantic percussion that Apple created by banging on the walls of her house. Its a similar energy, if not sound, to that captured in Song For Our Daughter, the recent album from folk artist Laura Marling. On the albums release, Marling told The Independent: This album represents a triumph over trauma. I found my way through the very complicated reparative process, and it turns out to be quite a cheery album, which is a blessing.
Marling directs her album towards her future child, just as Hayley Williams, on Petals for Armor, also contemplates generational trauma, and how she might feel about her own daughter someday (If my child needed protection from a f***er like that man, Id sooner gut him...). What these albums all share is an envisioning of life after trauma: they are acknowledging but not dwelling on the brutality of the past, and celebrating their complex present, their hopeful future.
Both Petals of Armor and HiRUDiN are albums about healing. They rejoice in the body, and in the bodys place in the natural world. Williams was inspired by a vision of plants growing from under her skin, and the record is underpinned by an extended metaphor that depicts her and other wilted women as blooming flowers fragile, yet persistent. On the funk strut of Watch Me While I Bloom, she strikes a triumphant chord, pulling back her head to truly savour the howl of the line: How lucky I feeeel, to be in my body again. Trauma can make its victims feel robbed of their bodily autonomy, but here Williams wields hers.
Stelmanis, meanwhile, names her record after Hirudin, an anticoagulant peptide found in the saliva of leeches. Its how the predator gets into you, the traces it leaves inside your body when it sucks your blood. But in different contexts, hirudin can also be medicinal. Just as Williams envisions herself as a flower, Austra figures herself part of the natural landscape: on Mountain Baby, backed by the uplifting power of a childrens choir, she likens her relationship to the bittersweet work of climbing to a great height, her love interest the mountain. But amid the pulsating rush of I Am Not Waiting, the very next song,she sings, I am a mountain, before breaking into the delicious refrain, Im over you! Im over you!
There are several of these whiplash moments on the record, which flits between the highs of being in a codependent couple, and the lows of escaping it. Her writing reflects the dizzying feeling of trying to make sense of conflicting memories and emotions, when sifting through the debris of a toxic relationship. I only realised the theme of the record was toxic relationships after Id just about finished writing it, Stelmanis explains. It became clear that there was this linear progression of being in a difficult relationship, getting out of it, and finding safety on the other side. But in terms of track arrangement, that linearity didnt quite work, and instead you get this relatively chaotic back-and-forth. Which I actually think is a more accurate description of real life experience, as nothing is ever actually linear!
Hayley Williams new solo album, Petals for Amor is about healing(Atlantic Records)
The non-linearity will feel familiar to any sufferer of any kind of trauma, a boomerang affliction which can barely affect you at one moment, and leave you debilitated the next. On Petals For Armor, Williams follows a more conventional arc: her three-part release charts a trajectory from darkness to light. But, of course, its not that simple. Shadows cling to the records happiest moments: as she hints on Simmer, with that opening line about rage, you think that youve tamed it, but its lying in wait. By the time she ramps up the motivational surge of Over Yet, after a bright, synth-washed onslaught of positive mantras, she sings mournfully: For all the darkened parts of me... The suggestion of tragedy clings even to her upbeat moments, like the club-facing Sugar On The Rim, where she muses on finding good love after a scarring experience: Maybe we just had to feel it/ So wed know the difference.
Williams and Stelmanis both sound liberated on their new albums, as three-dimensional women carving out winding paths to recovery that encompass anger, vulnerability, grief, and lots of joy, too. For Williams, her video Cinnamon provides an apt visual metaphor for the album as a whole, as she sings about the home in which she lived alone after the breakdown of her marriage. In the video, she sees chameleonic creatures climb down from the walls and furnishings, and stalk her through the house, evoking the paranoia of a PTSD sufferer. She tries to lock herself away inside a room, only to find that the creatures are in there with her. They go wherever she goes. And so, rather than fight any longer, she changes into a bright-coloured costume, and invites her tormentors to dance with her. Her pain becomes part of her performance, and the result is beautiful.
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