The album that made and destroyed Paramore mk. 1, and which served as emo-pop’s final hurrah, turns 10.
Note: an abridged version of this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
In April of 2009, vocalist and lyricist Hayley Williams pegged “Looking Up,” the eighth track of their third studio album brand new eyes (which turns 10 on Sunday), as the defining song of the record. Specifically, in the replicated diary shipped with the album’s limited edition boxset, she repeatedly circles the chorus lyric “I can’t believe we almost hung it up/We’re just getting started,” explaining how the fractious inter-band relationships had been talked through, how much the band had matured in the nine-month recording process following the shock cancellation of their 2008 European tour midway through, and how they’d come back through the other side stronger and closer for it. “God knows the world doesn’t need another band/But what a waste it would’ve been.” Hindsight would render such a proclamation extremely premature with either “Brick by Boring Brick”’s anti-fairytale lament or “Turn it Off”’s chorus mantra “And the worst part is/Before it gets any better we’re headed for a cliff/And in the freefall I will realise/I’m better off when I hit the bottom” being a more accurate representation of the band who made the record.
Paramore as a band have always been on the brink of imploding at some point, even at their very earliest pre-debut days, band members coming and going with a frequency that makes Fleetwood Mac seem strong and stable. An air of Drama has always hung around the group to a degree that one might argue unfairly overshadows the music – much like a lot of the non-My Chemical Romance members of the emo-pop boom of the mid-00s, it took music critics a begrudgingly long time to give the band their due, instead stoking those Drama flames with patronising praise and continuously singling Williams out as a solo star in the making – if it weren’t for the fact that the band would actively grapple with that instability in their music; debut All We Know is Falling was heavily about the first time that bassist Jeremy Davis left the band. Sophomore LP, 2007’s RIOT!, had punched the still-largely-teenaged band into the mainstream by a combination of right-place-right-time marketing push from their label and an undeniable string of BOP-worthy singles which instantly lodged their way into Kerrang! and student disco playlists for seemingly the rest of time – “Misery Business,” “crushcrushcrush,” “That’s What You Get.” They were selling out arenas, they were on the legendary Warped Tour, anecdotally they were universally adored across my Secondary School playground, capable of uniting damn-near everyone regardless of genre preferences.
And all the while, the band’s fissures grew deeper and deeper. Lead guitarist Josh Farro and Williams went through a very nasty breakup with each other, whilst he and his drummer brother Zac grew increasingly resentful of being what they saw as a “manufactured product of a major-label” due to Williams being the only member actually signed to their record label. Williams, for her part, felt crushed by the success of RIOT!, terrified she couldn’t write anything which could live up to or surpass the album that brought them such a wave of success and locking herself off from her band mates, only exacerbating the quintet’s collective communication breakdown. Throw on top of those the fact that, again, all five band members had been in the public eye since they were teenagers, all being forced to mature and find themselves under a microscope full of messy bitches who love Drama, and baby you got a stew going.
brand new eyes, then, is an aural bloodletting. It is a bitter, violent, occasionally spiteful record whose intentions can be gleamed from the way that co-producer Rob Cavallo (the alt/pop-rock producer extraordinaire then-responsible for revitalising Green Day and helping MCR conquer the mainstream) lets a menacing string of feedback slowly seep into the mix at the start of opener “Careful” before the charge of Josh Farro and Taylor York’s guitars go on the attack. For the first half of this record, Paramore really dig into each other with concentrated venom. “Ignorance” has jagged serrated guitar lines, including a solo where Farro shreds with the same guttural intensity as a screaming vocalist, whilst Williams viciously guts a failed friendship with the raw pure teenaged emotion of genuine betrayal. “Playing God” deceptively pulls back on the wall-to-wall guitars, letting some space into the mix, but that only makes the laser-precise takedown of hypocritical blame-dodging assholes in the lyrics all the clearer. Whilst “Brick by Boring Brick” is a lacerating self-critique of Williams’ time in the industry, painfully stabbing her naivety to death whilst the music aches for a return to those simpler dreamer days.
In fact, before we move on, I just want to highlight in bold-ass marker pen exactly how fucking good Williams’ lyricism is on this record. The music is great, raging inside the maelstrom of conflict and unfocussed anger in a manner that feels cathartic yet carries the bitter aftertaste of nothing having been fully resolved and presenting it all in sticky hooky pop goodness that’s extremely accessible but doesn’t dull the bite of the emotions powering the record, and Zac Farro continues to mesh together raw power with surprisingly complex beats for his drumming to really drive these songs home. But Williams’ lyrics are just stupendously good on this whole thing, there are BARS on every single song. “Just keep on cramming ideas down my throat” from “Playing God.” “All the best lies/They are told by fingers tied” from “Feeling Sorry.” “I could follow you to the beginning just to relive the start/Maybe then we’d remember to slow down all of our favourite parts” from “All I Wanted.” The entirety of eleventh-hour acoustic scared-of-the-future lament “Misguided Ghosts.” It took until 2017’s After Laughter for me to fully appreciate and acknowledge Hayley Williams as one of the greatest lyricists of her generation, the unsparing yet poetic way she communicates anger and anxiety and all those painful emotions in a manner that’s boldly unafraid and truthful, but brand new eyes is where the roots of such an argument took firm hold.
So, Side A concludes with the band in the freefall, the bottom in sight, “Turn it Off” acting as a borderline resignation for the end. But then “The Only Exception” opens up the album’s second half, a genuinely sweet acoustic ballad about Williams’ love for New Found Glory’s Chad Gilbert with more than a touch Goo Goo Dolls and Parachutes-era Coldplay in its DNA, and it’s like the band have achieved some kind of genuine breakthrough. After spending eyes’ first half airing out their grievances, hurtling towards catastrophe, screaming and crying, it’s almost like they’ve emerged through a prolonged collective dark night of the soul purged of their grudges and ready to fight as a unit again. (To hear them tell it in interviews at the time, that’s pretty much exactly what happened.)
“Feeling Sorry” presents the band with the option of wallowing in their own self-pity forever and them fervently rejecting it. On the album’s first side, there are points where it almost feels like Williams is fighting the music to be heard, where each instrument is technically playing in harmony with one another but you can sense the animosity and gritted teeth. But by the time of “Looking Up” and especially “Where the Lines Overlap,” there’s a renewed joy that feels earned and cathartic, an optimism tinged with the knowledge of what it took to get there – the closing duo of “Ghosts” and “All I Wanted,” the latter including a showstopping chill-inducing vocal performance from Williams, confronting the anxieties and divides which caused those conflicts directly but shorn of the spite and anger of Side A’s excursions. When the record ends in a prolonged sea of feedback, it does so in a manner which communicates unity and catharsis, in stark contrast to the feedback which began the album, as if announcing that Paramore had risen above Drama and weren’t going anywhere.
Time, of course, had other ideas. In fact, the decade following brand new eyes’ release has seemed determined to curdle any of the hope and triumph that can be found in the record. The Farros were gone by Christmas of 2010 in a truly bitter and contentious fashion too detailed to go into here. Jeremy Davis left in 2015 for a third time following the completion of promotional commitments to the then-trio’s 2013 self-titled album and immediately became embroiled in a legal dispute over his contributions or alleged lack-thereof to the band over the years as it pertained to royalties (both parties settled in 2017). Williams herself would go through an intense period of depression that saw her briefly leave the group for a spell in 2016. And whilst Zac Farro would make amends and rejoin Williams and Taylor York for After Laughter, Williams’ relationship with Chad Gilbert – the object of “Only Exception”’s affection, receiving a sequel in 2013’s “Still Into You” and the pair eventually marrying in 2016 – fell apart by early 2017 amid, should the lyrics of Laughter standout “Pool” be reflective of reality, accusations of his cheating on her.
Meanwhile, eyes would indeed vault Paramore into the height or near-height of their mainstream popularity at time of writing – the album debuted at #1 in the UK and remains their longest-charting in the country, gave them multiple sold-out arena tours for a solid 18 months after its release, lead single “Ignorance” remains their highest-charting in the UK (#14), and secured them as a permanent top-line fixture at alt-music festivals like Reading & Leeds for the remainder of the decade. Yet it would also function as a last hurrah. Both to Paramore v. 1.0 (equally in terms of music as it would in terms of line-up since they’ve deliberately shied away from repeating this kind of semi-abrasive guitar-driven anger in their output since) and the emo-pop boom they were a major part of as a whole.
Within two months of eyes’ release, Fall Out Boy would go on indefinite hiatus following a Greatest Hits compilation with their eventual return in 2013 (conveniently at the same time Paramore finally got it together to release a follow-up) and substantial change in sound being… contentious, let’s diplomatically say. Panic! At the Disco were also in the middle of their own tumultuous falling apart following 2008’s Pretty. Odd. My Chemical Romance would roar back in late 2010 with their career-best Danger Days – yeah, I said it, fight me bitches – only for the band who’d scored an unlikely #1 single four years earlier to have all their singles brick completely and the album fail to crack the Top 10, barely selling a third of what The Black Parade could; they’d unceremoniously call it quits in March of 2013. Thirty Seconds to Mars of all bands seemed like they’d make it through after December’s This is War garnered them the best reviews and sales figures of their career, but I’m just going to leave this link to the 2017 Ellen performance of “Walk on Water” here. The entire movement fell apart astonishingly quickly after brand new eyes’ release as the pop world (hastened by the kind of backlash that still makes “emo” a pejorative to this day) moved on.
But despite all of that… I’d argue that brand new eyes has actually had its power increase in the decade since. There’s a sensation of rubbernecking to the bitter hashing out of the album’s first half, to be sure, and a bittersweet tinge of falsehood to the attempted triumphs of the second half, but I don’t feel that future history negates the emotions on the record. There’s no cynicism in the album’s narrative and I really do get the sensation that all of the band’s members thought they’d managed to work through their differences and grudges to come out the other side stronger and better off as people. But life isn’t that neat and what may seem permanent can quickly reveal itself to be temporary, especially when those involved are just barely on the other side of 20 at the time. And I especially think that eyes has that bittersweet power cemented and increased with the release of After Laughter, a record where any façade of triumph and catharsis is completely stripped away for a bruising look at much of the same subjects as eyes but through an older, wiser, exhausted viewpoint.
Even if Paramore hadn’t collapsed following brand new eyes, they couldn’t have stayed the same band musically going forward. eyes functions as a therapeutic scream, a bookend to a certain mindset, that things are now going to be different but as scary and difficult and hard to look back on doing so may be, it’s better in the long run. Nothing’s clean, nothing’s truly closed, but you can’t let those conflicts stagnate forever. To quote “Feeling Sorry:” “You barely get by/The rest of us are trying… I’ve got no time for feeling sorry.”