Hayley Williams’ first solo album Petals for Armor opens with anticipation. A picky, nervy beat keeps threatening to build in ‘Simmer’, before finally breaking into a huge sigh of relief. This sigh marked the album’s themes: unclenching, letting go, finding yourself after having your world turned upside down. The album’s title became a kind of mantra – if you must have some armour in how you face the world, it should be delicate, beautiful, gentle – even if you’re going through some incredibly hard shit. Yet at times Petals for Armor sounded like an accelerated attempt to heal, hoping to miss out all of the complex, messy and contradictory feelings that healing might give us. By contrast, Williams’ second solo album, FLOWERS for VASES / descansos, lingers in the midst of those contradictions. It almost laughs at Petals for Armor – you thought you could get away with just jumping to the end? Yeah, try again.
FLOWERS for VASES / descansos is all the better for sitting with that complexity. Petals for Armor felt in some ways too polished. It was an album made before the pandemic but released during the pandemic, and that made some songs feel jarring – ‘Simmer’, for example, had clearly been planned as a tour opener, and you knew it every time you heard it. FLOWERS for VASES / descansos instead takes the circumstances of the pandemic as a reason to go deeper into the first album’s themes. This isn’t a moment to focus on the armour that we’ve built, but to focus on the grief, loss and mourning that got us there.
The album contains echoes of Williams’ divorce from New Found Glory frontman Chad Gilbert, but it also resonates more deeply. The album’s opener, ‘First Thing to Go’, perfectly encapsulates what it’s like just after you lose someone, where ‘time moves slow’ and ‘memories glow the way real moments don’t’. Later, in ‘Good Grief’, Williams starts bargaining, desperately wanting her ex to ‘play [her] something… one more time’, promising to stay quiet if they do. FLOWERS for VASES / descansos is filled with this duality, constantly negotiating for something that you know will be awful. From song to song, the tone dances: in some, Williams conjures grotesque and violent images – severed limbs and fired guns – and then in others, moves to nostalgically longing to look out ‘over those hills’ with her ex-partner.
If you’ve faced loss, trauma or grief – which most of us have – you’ll recognise the texture of FLOWERS for VASES / descansos. It’s never as simple as simply growing ‘petals for armour’. Instead, we find ourselves talking to ourselves, sinking into nostalgia, and then – as we do in the latter half of the album – returning to our childhood. The back half of FLOWERS for VASES / descansos is where its true magic is. In the haunting ‘KYRH’, Williams wants the listener to stay in the loss of the relationship – to ‘keep you right here where the line is’ – rather than have to delve into the harder-to-navigate childhood feelings of loss. After ‘KYRH’, the music takes on an aching, aged kind of grief. ‘Inordinary’, by far the album’s standout track, is filled with a longing for a home that never existed. Williams wishes she was ‘ordinary’, without the trappings of fame, but acknowledges she has always been inordinary, moving states to escape her stepfather.
The effortless movement between different kinds of loss is what makes this album a classic for me. Though it feels like a tired cliché by now to say that an album is ‘truly a product of the pandemic’, it feels like FLOWERS for VASES / descansos is. It takes the dreamy, synth-infected style of Petals for Armor and strips it back, punctuating with folky guitars and pianos instead. Williams wrote and performed the album entirely herself, and recorded it at home, and it bares these pandemic traces: ‘HYD’, for example, begins with a voice note demo, interrupted by the sounds of a plane flying overhead. These kinds of interruptions are reminders that there is an outside to grief, or at least moments where you can distance yourself enough to write an album about it. The final two tracks – the instrumental ‘Descansos’ and ‘Just A Lover’ – show the point of it all. A descansos is a roadside memorial, to commemorate a sudden unexpected death or change – and through the instrumental we realise this is what we’ve been in all along. ‘Just A Lover’ breaks down ‘space and time’, marking Williams’ ex as just another lover, not some star-crossed soulmate.
And like that, we’re back to Petals for Armor. Williams has described FLOWERS for VASES / descansos as a detour between the first and second Petals for Armor EPs. Far from a detour, FLOWERS for VASES / descansos is the main event.
Words by Kieran Cutting