Four years ago, Paramore made waves with their self-titled album, a fresh start for them after the departure of founding members Zac and Josh Farro. Last week, after a turbulent hiatus, the rock band returned with After Laughter, an ’80s nostalgia trip akin to the ones taken in recent history by artists like Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Marianas Trench. This fifth studio album continues the revolving door of band members (sans the constant of lead singer Hayley Williams) with the departure of bassist Jeremy Davis and the return of Zac Farro on drums.
Williams has stated that the album’s title is based on the moment after somebody finishes laughing, but it could just as easily have referenced the tone of the album as being beyond a point of levity; despite its upbeat ‘80s synth pop and new wave, the album’s primarily positive sheen is constructed around a world of bitterness and struggling told through the band’s trademark biting witticisms and emotional confessions.
This was easily established pre-emptively with the lead single and album-opener “Hard Times,” establishing its catchy beat with a marimba intro and transitioning into energetic guitar that’s the backdrop for lyrics about hitting rock bottom. “Fake Happy” follows the trend, addressing the feeling of being pressured to maintain a positive front, with its soft, acoustic intro leading into synths and a rocking chorus as Williams pleads, “Don’t ask me how I’ve been / Or make me play pretend.” Along similar lines are “Rose-Colored Boy,” where Williams sings of disillusionment as she proclaims, “I just killed off what was left of the optimist in me,” “Caught In The Middle,” which has a relaxed beat to accompany its mourning of being stuck in life, and “Told You So,” the album’s bitter, pessimistic second single.
Though After Laughter excels in snark much as every prior Paramore album has, the album is not lacking in nuance, with more than one conflicted ballad presenting these negative feelings in a different light. The light bass line and guitar melody of “Forgiveness” perfectly compliment the song’s contemplation over whether to grant absolution. Meanwhile, “26” is one of the best offerings that After Laughter has, a melancholy and introspective composition that searches for hope while it calls back to Brand New Eyes’ “Brick By Boring Brick” with the lines, “I’ve been chasing after dreamers in the clouds / After all, wasn’t I the one who said / To keep your feet on the ground?”
The synth-heavy “Grudges” is the one track on the album that thoroughly reads as a positive, upbeat number as it speaks of Zac Farro’s reconciliation with the band, though “Pool”—despite telling its tale of disillusionment in a relationship with drowning metaphors—ultimately has a similarly positive feeling in its unwillingness to give up on a love despite the difficulties.
“No Friend” is the true outlier of the album, with Williams sitting it out as guest vocalist Aaron Weiss (from mewithoutYou) takes the helm in a rhythmic, guitar-driven piece. Akin to a poetry reading set to music, the lyrics string together various references to Paramore’s discography, though the vocals are so hard to make out that, disappointingly enough, it’s difficult to fully appreciate what it brings to the table, even if you have the album booklet right in front of you.
After Laughter closes off in the emotionally bare and instrumentally minimal “Tell Me How,” evidently a letter to the band’s former bass player that explores mixed feelings and the difficulty of coping with a lack of closure. The backing of light piano and guitar perfectly accent the piece, but it’s effectively driven mostly by Williams’s vocals, which sells the vulnerability that the song’s lyrics express.
Despite the shifts and the shake-ups, Paramore maintains what defines the band at its core in this album, which is fun and enjoyable despite its largely negative undertones. While they’re following behind a league of artists who have already taken a stab at recreating ‘80s nostalgia, Paramore creates their own, individual, modern blend of that era’s sound, and the lyric-writing is better than ever with an impressive amount of compelling parallels and throwbacks to the band’s previous work. Still—and perhaps this says more about their last outing than it does this one, but—this does feel like a bit of a step back musically after the consistently great heights that Paramore reached in their self-titled era. Nonetheless, After Laughter carries the wit, emotion, and excitement of Paramore excellently, and it’s worth a listen for die-hard fans, newcomers, and everything in-between.