No artist showcased quite as much of a quarantine transformation as Hayley Williams. The Paramore lead singer released her explosive solo debut, Petals for Armor (2020), back in May, in the midst of lockdown. Nine months later, she surprised fans with a completely unannounced project: FLOWERS for VASES / descansos (2021). Despite revisiting some themes from its predecessor, the new album presents listeners with a very different Williams. While Petals for Armor exorcised Williams’s demons from past relationships, FLOWERS for VASES is overwhelmed by the grief she found in the aftermath. Melancholic at its heart, FLOWERS for VASES does not try to find the upside to a lover leaving—it instead mournfully examines their absence.
Instrumentally, the album is nothing like Williams’s previous work. The soft, intimate vocals contrast the loud vibratos and belts that epitomized her career in Paramore, and the bare-minimum folk instrumentals mark a departure from Petals for Armor’s experimental pop. If anything, FLOWERS for VASES sounds like something out of Williams’s self-serenades, where she played covers and acoustic versions of songs from home, accompanied only by her dog Alf. This may be partly because, similar to self-serenades, FLOWERS for VASES comes from Williams alone: she independently wrote, sang, and played all of the instruments on the album. Williams is not only a talented singer, but she is also a natural instrumentalist, and it feels oddly fitting for an album so thematically concerned with solitude.
FLOWERS for VASES begins with a goodbye. The first track, “First Thing To Go,” feels like a haunting sigh in an empty house, as Williams opens the album by crooning, “First thing to go was the sound of his voice, ah.” This sets the theme for the album’s first half: a lover that is long gone, but whose ghost still lingers. Without his physical presence, Williams transforms him into metaphors. He becomes the limb she must begrudgingly amputate in “My Limb,” the figure pointing the gun at her in “Trigger,” and the cardiac flat line in “Asystole.” Even when he is described as a person in “Over Those Hills,” he is still far away and half-imagined: “Over those hills, I bet you’re somewhere dreaming”. The songs are a testament to Williams’s remarkable songwriting, but it’s a bittersweet feeling, as she easily provides endless imagery for his absence and her struggle to carry on.
The pain reaches its apex in “Good Grief,” where Williams’s focus shifts from her ex-lover’s figure to her own introspective thoughts. This transition is somehow both self-destructive and self-healing. “Good Grief” embodies the more destructive side of this spectrum right in its first verse: “Haven’t eaten in three weeks / Skin and bones when you’re not near me / I’m all skeleton and melody.” The album’s more self-assured side surfaces on tracks like “Inordinary,” where Williams looks back at her whole life and states, “I don’t want your concern / As some consolation prize.” At its center, though, FLOWERS for VASES feels much like the chorus of the seventh track, “Wait On”: “The sky still wakes up every morning / And sometimes feels the need to pour out / Everything it’s tired of holding.” The memories in the lyrics are simultaneously both painful to remember and cathartic to let go.
Williams doesn’t shy away from diving into the darker parts of her memories, but whether she emerges from it victorious is a question left mostly unanswered. The following tracks—“HYD,” “No Use I Just Do,” and “Find Me Here”—feature more of Williams fixating on her lover’s absence and letting herself lament it in its entirety. There isn’t much happiness aside from the fourth-wall break in “HYD,” where Williams’s at-home recording is interrupted by her laughing at an airplane flying by and saying, “Are you fucking kidding me?”
This retrospective melancholia doesn’t end until the words do, which happens on the album’s penultimate song, “Descansos.” Named after roadside memorials, the track is entirely devoid of lyrics. It’s a weird choice, especially for an album that, up until this point, is characterized by poignant imagery and sharp lyricism. It’s as if Williams has run out of verbal descriptors for her pain, but it’s not a bad thing. She has finally made peace with her loss, finally has nothing else to say. Like the sky in “Wait On,” she has finished pouring out all that she is holding onto and is now just harmonizing to the instrumentals. It’s the closest to acceptance, or to reaching that final stage of a metaphorical death, that the album ever gets.
“Just a Lover,” the album’s closing track, feels like an epilogue with a massive time jump from the previous chapter. In the lyrics, Williams sets herself free from her burden and sings of love as something carefree: “Love has turned me into many others, now I guess I’m just / Just a lover.” The instrumental background also features the drums finally kicking in full force mid-song. The last minute of FLOWERS for VASES sounds like a return to her previous music style, even if the vocals and lyrics never quite survive the trip back, still maintaining that brooding, intimate style they have developed. The Williams from before and after FLOWERS for VASES merge for a brief moment in a promising transformation for her future projects as she vows, “No more music for the masses.”
“All I ever had to say about love is a sad song,” Williams confesses in “Trigger.” FLOWERS for VASES lacks the empowering elements from its predecessor, but it’s better off because of it. Williams’s love songs are indeed sad, but they have never felt more vulnerable. They have never been more truly hers.
Voice’s Choices: “My Limb,” “Over Those Hills,” and “Just a Lover”