How to define Paramore? Are they pop? Rock? Something else entirely? To be honest, I had always thought of them as catchy rock light, and liked them (or didn’t) on a song-by-song basis. “After Laughter” is the first album of theirs that I’ve listened to as an entire album; with that caveat, I’ll boldly claim that it’s a departure from their previous sound. Although it has the same upbeat, infectiously energetic, synthetic background sound, the ’80s influence is more strongly marked, and the wistful bittersweetness of the lyrics and vocals, which has always been there in the background, is more pronounced. The contrast between the light, highly danceable music–with occasional forays into smooth acoustic territory, as in “26”–and the downbeat lyrics, with songs like “Hard Times” and “Fake Happy,” could have been a terrible mismatch, but it works beautifully here: the lyrics on heartbreak, depression, and self-sabotage make the album more than just infectious candy pop, while the music takes what could have been a major downer of an album and makes it addictively listenable.
The first part of the album is full of theme of heartbreak and depression, something the singer wants to acknowledge and experience fully, spurning the naive attempts on the part of others to convince her to cheer up (e.g., “Rose-Colored Boy”) or forgive the transgressions of others (“Forgiveness”). Instead, she says, any happiness she’s experiencing is faked (“Fake Happy”). It is not until the halfway point, song 6 in the 12-song album, in “26,” that she is able to turn herself around a little, singing “Hold onto hope if you’ve got it/ Don’t let it go for nobody.” In the next song, “Pool,” she talks of diving back in–to an unhappy relationship. In the subsequent songs, e.g., “Idle Worship,” which has a return to the strident vocals typical of Paramore’s earlier songs, it’s the singer who is now the one letting down the other person in the relationship. Although the album is not a concept album as such, it does contain a (vicious) cycle of hurt and heartbreak.
If this sounds overly depressing, it’s not–or at least, it’s offset by the sunny musical sound, and the occasional flashes of hope, as in “26” and the closing track, “Tell Me How.” The lyrical voice of the album may not have relationships figured out yet, but she does seem to be figuring out herself, and learning how to withstand the ups and downs that life throws everyone’s way.