In 2017, Hayley Williams faced two pivotal life changes. One was the dissolution of her marriage to New Found Glory front man Chad Gilbert. The other was a hiatus of her career-defining band Paramore, after the alt-pop group just finished their After Laughter album tour and was still dealing with the repercussions of a tumultuous royalty lawsuit from former band member Jeremy Davis.
In an essay for Paper Magazine in 2018, Williams reflected on her declining mental health. “A lot happened within a short time,” she wrote. “But then I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep, I didn’t laugh… for a long time.”
Williams used these three years to heal, and simultaneously develop her own sound apart from Paramore. And on February 6, 2020, she finally released Petals for Armor I, an EP featuring the first five songs of her highly anticipated debut solo album. These tracks radiate introspection as Williams departs from her loud, confident Paramore persona in favor of a mellow, brooding sound. Lyrically, Petals for Armor I hinges on themes of vulnerability, processing trauma and starting anew.
“Simmer” and “Leave It Alone” were the first two singles, and immediately set the emotionally raw tone of the EP. “Simmer” is an unexpectedly haunting ode to rage in which Williams quietly gets under your skin instead of projecting red-hot anger. The song’s highlight is the second verse, wherein her voice switches from vulnerable flutters to a razor blades as she condemns “a fucker like that man” (presumably her ex-husband). “Leave It Alone” serves as a narrative continuation of “Simmer,” focusing on grief and loss of control in love. Williams’ vocal syncopation allows her voice to blend with the instrumentation, an unexpected turn for a singer who has the range to full-on belt. Instead she takes a step back, and her vulnerability is breathtaking, if not utterly depressing.
“Cinnamon” is the first song on the record on which Williams unclenches her teeth, and there is a much-needed moment of catharsis halfway through the record. The track has hints of psychedelia in its sonic weirdness, and though it’s a little unsettling, it is ultimately fun and feels more like a rise to power than a nervous breakdown. By the electric guitar chorus, you can picture Williams jumping around her house, shouting the mantra, “I’m not lonely baby, I am free!” “Creepin’” is a groovy track about a vampire baby, but also a not-so-subtle ode to abusive relationships. It also delivers one of the best, gut-punch lines: “You had a taste but don’t want to forget // Just keep sucking on the memory of him.” This song isn’t the most memorable, but that one line was striking enough to warrant another listen.
The last track, “Sudden Desire,” hits a lot of marks. It’s the best showcase of Williams’ vocal range, as she flows between soft whispers and arresting belts with incredible fluidity. It is the most objectively “fun” and mainstream-sounding on the album, giving us a taste of Paramore’s punchy rock. And it is also the album’s raciest song, as Williams taps into forbidden desire — gasp — just wanting to “feel his hands go down.” Paramore purists will most likely choose this song as their favorite, and it is a strong ending note for the first installment of Petals for Armor I.
That being said, the first three songs feel like a cohesive group of eclectic, emotional tracks, while the other two might have fit better on an alt-pop album. Maybe this hints at Petals for Armor II leaning into this aspect of Williams’ sonic past. But hopefully, she will include more experimental, work-of-art tracks like “Simmer,” “Leave It Alone” and “Cinnamon” on the next installment. Williams has a vision, and her delicate power sets her apart as a solo artist.
Featured image: Atlantic Records