It’s tough being pigeon-holed, and it’s even harder if the label that you have been assigned is more of a commercial one than an artistic one. The trick to dealing with this unenviable situation is figuring out how walk a narrow line between indulging your creative urges and staying true to your roots—and your fan base. Every group that has achieved financial success while maintaining a sense of artistic integrity has figured out this formula, and the ones that haven’t, well, haven’t.
Emo darlings Paramore have a serious case of the “too commercial to be creative” blues. They had a good thing going when they were founded in 2004. Lead singer Hayley Williams—then 14 years old—wrote tracks that were angry enough to attract rebellious pre-teens, but innocent enough to win the approval of worried parents. This, combined with the band’s Christian leanings and goth-punk look, won them a huge following and the attention of major record labels. However, 10 years and three albums later, Paramore haven’t really grown up with Williams. Their latest album, also called “Paramore,” is full of the same lackluster songwriting that has characterized their work from the beginning and, apart from a few tentative steps into new territory, shows a disappointing lack of ambition and creativity.
The tone of the album is perfectly encapsulated in its opening track, an energetic elegy homage to teen angst called “Fast Car.” The song is driven along by a steady 4/4 drum beat and is based around the sort of guitar licks that would be intriguingly dissonant if they weren’t polished to oblivion by sound effects and filters. Over this, Williams sings lyrics like “hollowed out and filled with hate / all we want is for you to give us a break,” which sound more than a little disingenuous coming from a woman with a decade of commercial success and recognition under her belt.
“Paramore” moves along with this formula for a little over an hour, and its 17 tracks are divided into three sections by short “interludes” on which Williams accompanies herself on ukulele. These brief tracks—the longest is only a minute and a half long—provide the album with some of its freshest moments. The group takes a step back from its usual over-produced pop-punk sound and give Williams’s voice the space it needs to really shine. On “Interlude: Moving On,” her voice is clear and bright as she sings “I could be angry but you’re not worth the fight / besides I’m moving on.” These tracks are heartfelt and honest, and they express the band’s lyrical themes much better than anything else on the record.
Most of the faster songs on “Paramore” are virtually interchangeable: they feature the same sorts of inoffensive guitar lines and drum beats that Paramore have been writing since the beginning without any of the substance that would make them interesting. However, “Ain’t it Fun”—easily the best song on the album—finally breaks this mold. It opens with a jaunty, rhythmic xylophone line, quickly mirrored by guitar. As the band powers into the pre-chorus, the song bursts into a rhythm and chord progression that sounds more like a Quincy Jones-produced Michael Jackson song than a pop-punk track. Building on this theme, the break-down features a full, gospel-inspired chorus singing “don't go crying to your mama / because you’re on your own in the real world.” The result is Paramore at their best: a band capable of combining artistic influences while dressing them up in emo aesthetics. It’s just a shame more of their songs aren’t like this.
The thing that is most disappointing about “Paramore” is how much of their actual songwriting acumen is visible underneath all of the overproduction and sound effects. When they take the time to step back and strip down their sound, or when they find the courage to step out of their box and experiment with new styles, Paramore can actually write some good stuff. However, these well-written moments are buried underneath an endless wave of boring, derivative pop-punk. It almost sounds like they knew they could change it up, but they just chose not to.