In the last few years, the dominant narrative surrounding alt-pop superstars Paramore has been the acrimonious 2010 departure of founding members Josh and Zac Farro. The focus on this drama has often been to the exclusion of the band’s music, which is frustrating: Over the last decade, the members of Paramore have grown from gawky emo-punk kids into mature musicians with diverse influences and plenty to say. The constant rehashing of this schism is especially galling in light of the band’s self-titled fourth album, which shows significant and compelling songwriting growth. Paramore’s core sound—well-crafted pop-rock with a punk edge—is merely a starting point for the record. Across these 17 songs, the band piles on and assimilates a smorgasbord of styles: M83-like synth ambience (the end of “Grow Up”), girl-group sass (“(One Of Those) Crazy Girls”), steamrolling noise roars (the Joy Formidable-reminiscent “Now”), and jubilant punk (the skank-worthy “Anklebiters”). Producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen and studio drummer Ilan Rubin ensure these explorations never sound too polished, either. Even the most straightforward songs—the spunky ’90s pop of “Fast In My Car,” No Doubt-like mash note “Still Into You,” and keyboard-aided power-pop of “Daydreaming”—feel looser and grittier.
Above all, Paramore never feels beholden to the group’s history or to expectations. The band members respond to this freedom with ferocity: Jeremy Davis’ Cure-like bass on the post-punk highlight “Part II” is electric, while guitarist Taylor York slashes through song after song with confidence. Firecracker vocalist Hayley Williams also lets loose, hollering like a country-pop star (she channels Kelly Clarkson and Dolly Parton on “Proof”), crooning like Morrissey (the sting-laced brood “Hate To See Your Heart Break”), and even pulling a Mariah Carey (the early-’90s R&B-pop romp “Ain’t It Fun,” which also features a gospel choir). The album’s lyrics have an emotional lightness even as they tackle heady topics: becoming a woman, shedding toxic friendships and past baggage, fighting for what you believe in, granting forgiveness, and striving for happiness.
If Paramore has a flaw, it’s that there’s so much going on and so many stylistic flourishes, the record never quite coalesces. And its slower moments can drag: Three brief interludes that feature Williams singing over ukulele are pleasant but inconsequential. But Paramore is the rare record on which a band clearly wants to assert itself as a serious artistic force and actually succeeds.