Reflections on After Laughter
Five years of the album that taught me It's Not That Deep
When Paramore’s After Laughter came out on May 12, 2017, I had just worked the most hellish weekend of the year, Mother’s Day, at my garden store job. I don’t think I actually listened to the album until after the weekend—because the first time I heard “Rose-Colored Boy,” I was in the car on the way to indulge in an overpriced ice cream cone, and I remember feeling happy, which I wouldn’t have after a long shift. I’d decided to give my off-and-on favorite band’s new album a chance, and I was on Track 2, cautiously optimistic.
Thanks for reading Paramore For Dummies! Subscribe for free to get these posts as emails - it’s more fun, I promise!
The song’s intoxicating pop melody washed over me, as I lowered my guard (and my car window) just in time for the pre-chorus lyrics to punch me in the gut: “You got me nervous / I’m right at the end of my rope / a half-empty girl, don’t make me laugh, I’ll choke.”
Then the chorus crashed in, distilling Paramore’s signature angst into rage against the burden of false optimism. “Just let me cry a little bit longer,” via sunny major F and B-flat chords, felt like a brightly colored water balloon hitting me in the face.
I have always felt like Paramore frontwoman Hayley Williams, (almost exactly) three years older than me, was carving a trail through whatever life stage lay directly ahead of me, and leaving me albums as road signs.
2017 was a weird year for me. I was 25 when After Laughter came out—a few years out of college, friendless in a new city. Floundering. Like all of us, a year into that one guy’s presidency. I got on antidepressants. I was stable for maybe the first time ever, but also too tired to care much about my favorite band coming out with a new album. There was no guarantee it’d be good, anyway; my hopes at the time were fragile, and my barely-managed pain, fractal. No use expecting much.
After Laughter’s timing couldn’t have been better. The manic rage, grief, and frustration on this album document how youthful malaise ripens into disillusioned adulthood. In retrospect, the world of 2017 now seems kinder and calmer than that of 2022—but as the world gets worse, the album rings even truer. I still see tweets referencing Williams’ now-timeless cynical sentiments.
While it’s unmistakably a pop album, After Laughter’s subject matter is Paramore’s saddest to date, confessing empty-eyed despair, failing relationships, and bone-deep anxiety. Williams’ marriage was falling apart in realtime during this album cycle, we’d later learn. With nowhere to retreat but into her art, Williams channels desperation into a riot of tropical synths and marimbas, buzzing electric guitars, and mockingly bright melodies.
As track after track unfurled in that car with the windows down, I felt my ambient anger and sadness concentrate, and break like a wave. “You hurt me bad this time, no coming back / And I cried 'til I couldn't cry, another heart attack,” Hayley belted over a buoyant riff in “Forgiveness.”
“Fake Happy” punches even harder, culminating in a fierce catharsis like the burning tingle of thawing limbs. “Oh, please, don’t ask me how I’ve been / don’t make me play pretend.” Five songs in, the central question Williams asks on After Laughter was beginning to take shape for me: how do you keep living when you just keep losing?
The album, as its title suggests, is about life after joy ends, but more specifically, it’s about the aftermath—what happens when pain persists beyond the point of romanticism. It stops feeling so deep, is what happens.
Paramore occasionally does Easter eggs, and my heart sank as I threaded “Pool”’s aquatic metaphors back to those on “Proof,” my favorite song off of their previous album, released three years earlier. “Proof” is a love song where she says she’ll “ride the undercurrent down to the floor,” promising devotion in an airtight relationship as deep as the ocean.
In “Pool,” by contrast, Hayley howls that she “never found the deep end of our little ocean / drain the fantasy of you headfirst into shallow pools.” Over the album’s most acutely satisfying keys and elaborate xylophone textures, pain radiates from a hopeless moment, with no resolution in sight.
The manic energy smoothed a little for the buoyant “Grudges,” which recounts Williams’ cautious, relief-filled reconciliation with Paramore drummer Zac Farro, before diving into bleaker regions for the album’s remainder.
While After Laughter is Paramore’s poppiest album, the band buried “Idle Worship,” one of their punk-est songs to date, deep in the lineup. The track strips Williams’ anthemic voice down to its rawest, as she begs to get off everyone’s metaphorical pedestal: “Just let me let you down.” (A far cry from the superhero mantle she took up during the band’s Self-Titled album era, where she shouldered the world’s scrutiny in “Fast In My Car,” and sorrows in “Hate To See Your Heart Break.”)
“Idle Worship” transitioned into “No Friend,” the After Laughter track that, to date, has the least amount of Spotify streams. Grungy guitar meanders over Farro’s frenetic, cymbal-heavy drums. Williams’ vocals were nowhere to be found; instead, mewithoutYou frontman Aaron Weiss mumbles cryptic, barely-discernible verses. The track might seem oddly juxtaposed against the pop bangers of the album’s first half, but for a longtime Paramore fan like me, it was buried treasure: Hayley has called mewithoutYou her favorite band many times over the years, and “No Friend” felt like a nod to fans who would know that.
As I approached the end of the album, winding through the streets of Portland, I braced myself for the final song on the album. Historically, with the arguable exception of Riot!’s upbeat “Born For This,” Paramore’s album-enders are always a gut punch: “My Heart,” “All I Wanted,” “Future.” After Laughter’s final offering, “Tell Me How,” proved no different: resigned piano chords underlined Williams’ heart-cracking confessional that starts:
I can't call you a stranger
But I can't call you
I know you think that I erased you
You may hate me but I can't hate you
And I won't replace you
If After Laughter is Paramore’s first album about adulthood, “Tell Me How” is its bereft link to teenage heartbreak that never fully goes away. Maybe it’s about her failed marriage; maybe it’s about either of her agonizing falling-outs with former bandmates Josh Farro or Jeremy Davis; maybe it’s about a private heartbreak we will never fully comprehend. As Paramore fans, we have learned to love Williams, the band, and the music without any guarantee of knowing the details.
Ultimately, though, the gift of After Laughter is not in any tabloid-worthy scoop about Hayley’s life. It’s in the mature, musically eclectic, brutally honest framework she gives us, many of whom are now adults alongside her, to process the grief of life—a grief that perhaps sprouted from the angsty seeds that first drew us to her as teens.
Turns out, there is no deeper meaning to what’s been broken. If there is catharsis to be had after laughter—whether it’s in creating elevated pop-rock, remaking a personal narrative, or simply attempting a new medication—we’ve got to make it for ourselves.
Thanks for reading Paramore For Dummies! Subscribe for free to get these posts as emails.