Album Review: Hayley Williams makes an egocentric return with ‘FLOWERS for VASES / descanos’

Her second solo album in a year contains less variety and nearly all the same flaws as the first.

When Hayley Williams of Paramore fame initially announced her debut solo record Petals for Armor last year, the internet beamed with anticipation. Would she finally pursue pop ala her smash hit “Airplanes” with B.o.B.? Or perhaps something more rock-oriented like Paramore? The final result was something few could have expected. Whereas Paramore begged for “the flames [to] begin,” Hayley Williams merely pleaded for a “simmer,” a minimalist, timid production paired with vengeful lyricism. The art-pop ambiance of Petals for Armor was largely well-received, despite its left of center approach. For the follow-up, the sister album FLOWERS for VASES sticks largely to the same formula, to a fault.

While Petals for Armor was peppered with pop jams like “Over Yet” and “Sugar on the Rim,” there are even fewer uptempo appearances here, leaving “Flowers” to feel like the acoustic side of the Williams-solo-career coin. She strips the production here to the bones, often leaving just her voice, a piano, guitar, and drums to perform. Her Tennessee upbringing cuts through on this record more-so than any of her previous work, with Appalachian guitar strings adorning the tracks “Wait On” and “Inordinary.” Like it is you and Williams alone in her room, that intimacy can draw one in with ease, but she struggles to captivate even as she lowers her walls. The pensive and stunning “KYRH” only captivates for its duration of only two and a half minutes, when the entire idea driving the song is to keep a lover suspended in time.

Every song – even those meant to be uplifting – still feel tainted by anguish, giving little room to breathe in an album full of Williams’ anxieties. She leaves no holds barred, comparing the loss of a relationship to an amputation where she’s “left to bleed out,” and when she finds love, it never lasts for long. While there can be no doubt that this record and its lyricism was therapeutic for Williams, this unfiltered and raw approach makes for an emotionally exhausting experience. In tandem with the album’s one-dimensional production, her relentlessly draining yet stunning lyricism is left to do the heavy lifting.

Horror and misery ignored, Williams continues to prove herself as a tour de force songwriter. “Good Grief” boasts the brilliant refrain – “there’s no such thing as good grief” – that exemplifies Williams’ strengths as a lyricist. She’s poetic and prophetic in each stanza that she sings, fully revealing a facet of her artistry that often gets (unduly) overshadowed in her work with Paramore.

Perhaps Williams’ greatest asset is her ever-reliable voice. Every ounce of confidence that radiates from her Paramore persona is found in every breath she takes, every note she mutters. Her voice, often just hovering above her gentle instrumentation, is such a treasure that it commands the attention of every song, leaving the audience pining for each of those heart-tugging words that escape her lips. Her low register colors the lead single “My Limb” and adds contrast to an album that is otherwise devoid of it.

Though Flowers for Vases demonstrates Williams’ strong musicianship and creative vision, it’s an endeavor that is not for her fans’ enjoyment or benefit but herself. Williams seems to ponder this possibility in one of the final moments of the album, “I’ll be singing into empty glasses / No more music for the masses,” but continues to march to the beat of her own self-fulfilling drum. Given the demands of being in a Pop band like Paramore, it’s easy to sympathize with Williams wanting a project that is all her own. But there’s a fine line between preserving one’s artistic integrity and capitulating to the public, and Williams has yet to find it.

Read Hayley Williams vocal profile. Stream Flowers for Vases.

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