Witnessing the musical evolution Paramore has taken over the years has been an honestly exciting experience. Granted, punk acts going pop is hardly a new occurrence, but few have pulled it off with the same level of finesse these guys have. Just look at All Time Low’s recent output. Last Young Renegades was an ok pop record in its own right (and I’m glad to say I’ve warmed up to it a little since its release) but compared to prior releases it was a clunky experiment that wasn’t fleshed out enough to be anywhere close to satisfying. Or how about acts like Fall Out Boy or Panic! At the Disco? Mania was an overblown catastrophy and although I’ve never been into Panic! myself the general consensus among fans is that their most recent material is severely lacking. That After Laughter managed to pull off a completely new sound and still be embraced by so many is an accomplishment to be proud of. But does the record itself stand beside their best?
Musically, After Laughter is a sleek, retro pop album bathed in 80s nostalgia. It’s fun, almost addictively so, but hidden in the nuance is a bittersweet feeling. No matter how hard the music tries to mask it the lyrics always bring it to light in some form. Lead single “Hard Times” is the perfect example of this dichotomy. Carried by bouncy synths, keyboards, and a groovy bass are the lyrics, “(Hard Times) Gonna make you wonder why you even try / (Hard times) gonna take you down and laugh when you cry / (These lives) and I still don’t know how I even survive.” Again, contrasting bright music with downcast lyrics isn’t anything new, but neither does it come across as disingenuous. Paramore has been through a lot as a band and they’ve been at breaking point multiple times. That After Laughter is this happy is better than expected.
“Rose-Colored Boy” is another highlight that sounds like something straight out of Cyndi Lauper’s book. The cheerleading chant that appears at multiple points may sound like a bad idea on paper, especially for a pop song as smooth as this, but it works surprisingly well. It’s also surprising how much “Forgiveness” has grown on me over time. While it came across as a somewhat uninteresting lull at first, it has an undeniable, chill groove to it that I’ve come to appreciate the more I spin it. Moreover, “Fake Happy” is by far the record’s crown achievement. It begins with a muffled acoustic intro before a head-bopping keyboard comes in to carry the verses until the entire band erupts at the chorus. The “Ba da ba da ba ba!” in the bridge and outro is one of the best moments of the band’s discography, period.
“26” is a gorgeous ballad that shares semblance to tracks such as “Misguided Ghosts” from Brand New Eyes and “Hate To See Your Heart Break” from the self-titled. It’s no wonder why it became a fan favourite. “Pool” and “Grudges” are both fantastic, but although “Pool” has gotten a lot of attention since its release, “Grudges” remains a devastatingly underrated gem. “Caught In The Middle” is, at its title suggests, a song stuck between trying something new and retaining a familiar style. It and “Idle Worship” are the most “punk” sounding songs here. Like “Forgiveness” before them, they have grown over time, just not to the extent where I can honestly say I love them. “Tell Me Now” is a nice bookend to the record overall even if a little underwhelming when compared to “Future” and “All I Wanted.”
After Laughter is an exciting record for a number of reasons. It shows that the band can play with practically any sound they choose and still be able to create something wonderful. Moreover, it leaves the band’s future wide open. Where will they go next? Will they continue to build on this or will they try something new yet again? Personally, I’m hoping for the former, because as great as After Laughter is, there is room for improvement. It’s the Riot! of their pop chapter in other words and not everything works (“No Friend” remains a perplexing inclusion). But even if they continue to try new sounds and experiment it would hardly be a disappointment. It’s another fantastic addition to Paramore’s collection and I’m certain they will be utterly captivating live.