Before working on her solo debut, Petals For Armor, Hayley Williams wasn’t convinced she could venture out on her own. (Of course, that didn’t prevent her from crafting what would become one of the best albums of 2020 and a token of her serious growth as an artist.) But nearly a year in lockdown has left the Paramore frontwoman steeped in lingering memories of her earlier, heartbreak-riddled life—and that previous hesitance has seemingly been replaced with an appreciation for just how much she can accomplish on her own. The result of this fresh introspection is a string of musical descansos: memorials of unexpected endings, softly delivered. Williams wrote and performed the entire 14-track, scantily produced collection while in quarantine, and it’s a quiet yet entrancing example of what it means to exist between the margins of hurt and total restoration, to forgive but not entirely forget. The folksy sound may largely deviate from even her most recent rock-pop turn, but the unrelenting candor remains as much of a draw as ever.
Where Petals For Armor appeared to take a more comprehensive approach to grief, Flowers For Vases rests somewhat comfortably between the depressive and acceptance stages that follow a loss. That isn’t to say that the album is depressing per se: Pandemic-imposed solitude led Williams to spend more time confronting the emotions many of us attempt to evade—things like gnawing, lingering attachment and the anxiety that comes with having to start over. Album opener “First Thing To Go” speaks directly to both experiences—“And I am scared to lose / What’s left of you”—as she processes what it means to definitively close a chapter in life and separate oneself from a dead relationship. Williams’ delicate vocals barely ascend above her acoustic guitar, but her lilting voice doesn’t make her honesty here (or in similarly wistful tracks like “HYD”) any less forceful. It cements the impression that this record, above all else, is more of a prequel to its predecessor than a continuation, the kind of hesitation that comes before the full-blown metamorphoses found in “Watch Me While I Bloom” or the new love that fuels “Taken.”
Although this is a softer, more stripped-down effort than longtime fans might expect, Williams offers hints of the percolating rock that has driven her career. “My Limb” rides on persistent electric guitar licks and a staccato drum beat, reminiscent of the way a heart stammers at the thought of finally breaking away from someone once and for all. It’s hard not to find some comfort in watching Williams—a woman who has long stood as a paragon of female badassery and holy rage—dig into just how difficult it is to move on. “Asystole” shows Williams debate the merits of reviving a flatlining relationship versus pulling the plug, another snapshot of a very human moment elevated by haunting background vocals and a lovely piano melody. A beachside vibe drives “Over Those Hills,” a tune exploring the natural curiosity over an ex-lover’s new life that doesn’t result in wanting to get back together.
The most notable difference between Williams’ two solo releases lies in the lack of overt genre-hopping this time around. Flowers For Vases doesn’t offer a dance sojourn like “Sugar On The Rim” or an uptempo manifesto like “Dead Horse.” The entire album remains firmly in the realm of low-key folk; anyone looking for substantial breaks in tone and tempo may find some of the entries bleeding together. “Good Grief” and “Wait On,” for example, may slightly differ in color, with the latter offering sunnier orchestration, but the two acoustic-driven moments in sequence leave the listener in repose too long for an artist typically known to break up the monotony with a little chaos. There was also greater variety in subject matter the first time around: Heartbreak, anger, acceptance, new love, mental health, and hope converged into something a little more well-rounded. Flowers For Vases, for all its beauty, appears single-minded in comparison, focusing solely on pain-tinged recollection and the challenge of moving forward.
But if Williams chooses to spend some extra time wading through the uncomfortable emotions that mark a particular breakup—especially when those feelings make way for more personal growth—then it’s a worthwhile bit of exploration. The return of soaring guitar riffs in the album’s closer, “Just A Lover,” signals a bold step forward even as the lyrics still hint at certain trepidation (“No little cameras to witness / Really hope we don’t wreck this”). It’s the work of someone rightfully scared of major change, but still willing to do the emotional work needed in order to face it head-on.