As everyone seems to be on edge after a tumultuous year (and another uncertain one ahead), the queen of alternative pop delivers another wistful gem full of honest hope. Flowers for Vases is her second full-length album, the sequel to Petals for Armor released one day short of a year since the first one.
Both albums have taken a drastically new style from her better-known work in the generational emo classic that has is Paramore, but one thing they have in common, is that they paint struggle as strength, and weakness as untapped potential. In my humble opinion, I enjoyed the more tranquil sonic elements of this newer installment more than the previous one, which was populated by a lot more syncopation and jarring effects. Meant to be a tangible representation of anxiety and betrayal, Petals for Armor delivers all that and more, but I think Hayley has truly found her stride in her sophomore solo release recorded completely at home.
On this album, there are the descansos symbols, little sideways crosses. I found this intriguing, as at first I worried it was something potentially occult. But a brief internet search explained that descansos are the little crosses often planted at the scene of a tragedy. Somehow, that seems so fitting for this album full of loss and longing.
Without further ado, I’m sharing my favorite moments from Flowers for Vases, for your listening pleasure:
1. First Thing to Go
An airy acoustic guitar and Hayley’s luscious, melismatic vocals fill the soundscape in this opening track rife with suspended chords. It’s incredibly wistful, and the addition of the xylophone and subtle string instruments adds more tension to this song, that builds subtly like a river breaking away the topsoil. “Why do memories glow the way real memories don’t” is a haunting line that poses a really interesting point about hindsight. The bridge section strips down to bass, and some surprising R&B inspired vocal harmonies. There’s a lot going on in this deceptively simple song, and it portrays the surprising nature of memories tangibly.
2. My Limb
Likely the angriest song on the album, and it’s only track two! “If your part of me is gone now / Do I wanna survive?” is a clever comparison to losing a lover with losing a limb. It’s visceral, and horridly real – a beautifully honest representation of that feeling you get when you lose the other person, and part of you feels gone too. The repetition of “my limb” in varying vocal articulations brings a sense of urgency to the piece.
The title is a word defining the moment a heartbeat flatlines – I didn’t know that until I looked it up. Paired with the eleven-bar syncopated Spanish-influenced acoustic guitar, the tone is hopeful even when the meaning is terribly dark. Once again, Hayley is showing her songwriting prowess by bringing the metaphor of revival and death into her music. “But if I pull the plug, it isn’t only me that I’m holding back” refers to the worst part of a relationship, perhaps when you’re not quite ready to let go, but holding on hurts just as much. Subtle electric guitar articulations and programmed sound effects flow over and under the vocals, setting the mood in an airy, uncertain climate.
This is the first song I listened to of the album, which clued me in that it was something truly special. It has a lot of Taylor Swift vibes in it: perhaps the very relatable pop-melody, mixed with the deep lyrics. My favorite moment of the song is probably “It makes me feel like the pain had a purpose / Keeps me believing / That maybe it’s worth it”. Then the shift to “I got the trigger but you hold the gun / how come you never put the safety on?” brings about complicated feelings of obligation and blame. It’s equal parts internal monologue and conversation, that seems to hint at the futility of the human condition and the inconsistencies that characterize it all.
5. Over Those Hills
I love how this song starts out as the raw demo recording, then a seamless move into the mastered version. With bouncing chords reminiscent of a Sheryl Crow earworm, Hayley brings around the lighter, jazzier side of sadness. This song has a really subtle rock feel, mixed with the whimsical chord progressions that signal something bigger is looming just under the surface. Ethereal vocal harmonies punctuate the hope that she’s cultivating. “Almost went numb / Thought I’d had enough / But the hurt is half the fun” punctuate the sadness with a very obvious major-scale climb in the vocal harmony. Enter in a sprightly guitar solo, and suddenly it feels like the sun is coming out from the clouds, and everything really just might turn out okay after all.
6. Good Grief
The rhythms in this one are really interesting – the vocals bounce off the syncopated guitar, but they seem to be even slightly off the off-beat. Obviously a stylistic decision, but my musical ear is equal parts intrigued and amused. The vocals are enriched in the mix, standing out starkly from the minimalist acoustic guitar. “There’s no such thing as good grief / took two months to pack up your things” shows the hopeful side of being alone, and growing in the ashes of a dead relationship. It ends as quickly as it came, with indiscernible childlike voices laughing (or maybe crying) with a flourish. It’s hopeful, but also dark and a bit ghastly.
7. Wait On
This one might be my personal favorite on the album, and I find it to be the most personally relatable to me. The arpeggiated guitar layered with a bouncy bass line reminds me of something Fleetwood Mac would do, and I absolutely love the way the chorus opens up and feels like blue skies and sunshine after the rain. “There was a bird who never flew / But she still kept all of her feathers / So she could pluck ’em out for you / And you could wear them in your hair and / She’d be with you” is a beautiful image of sacrifice and love, almost to a degrading level. Sometimes, we find ourselves so in love with the idea of someone, that we end up sacrificing too much of our own peace just on the off-chance our feelings are reciprocated.
The title is an acronym for “Keep You Right Here” – and the entirety of the song is just a short, five-line poem repeated. Amidst the words, are minor piano chords and a tense droning in the background. It’s full of longing and hope, but there are notes of obsessive qualities in it as well. Beautiful vocal harmonies fill the space as it continues on, providing listeners with a calming song they can sink into for the full two-minutes and thirty-four seconds.
This song is a serious contender for being my favorite as well – it’s sad yet hopeful (like the rest of this album), but also skillfully portrays childhood and coming-of-age. It’s not as romantic as some of the other songs, but the undercurrent is still there. I also love the wordplay of “I wasn’t ordinary / I was inordinary” because it provides that weird sensation of a word no longer sounding like a word when it’s said too many times in a row. It creates a powerful literary texture that only strengthens the tension and honesty of growing up, moving away, and feeling jaded by life at such a relatively young age. Garbled vocal articulations fill the bridge section, and Hayley’s own voice sounds like she’s underwater. It’s unsettling, but intriguing all the same.
Yet another acronym, “How you doing” is beautiful in its simplicity. The quirky soundbite of Hayley recording one of the rough demos and swearing at a plane flying overhead adds a delightful tone to the piece (and her voice even stays on-key, amusingly enough!). It’s incredibly melancholy, and the harmonies are ghastly, painting Hayley a bit like a ghost overseeing her life from the third person. Further into the song, the mix thickens with piano arpeggios and more echoing vocals and instrumental reverb. “I know it’s hard for you / To take a compliment / But my life began / The day you came into it” is an incredibly pithy line, and I love the way Hayley uses harmonies in this song to emphasize certain lyrics.
11. No Use I Just Do
Okay, this song is also something I relate to quite a lot. It’s that frustratingly real feeling of being totally in love but it not being quite enough to produce a result. The other person could be totally unable to commit or acknowledge anything, but you’re so far gone, it just no longer matters. This song sounds exactly how I often feel. “Nobody wants to be alone / But that is not why I want you / See I have tried and I keep trying / But baby it’s no use / It’s no use I just love you” is the crux of the piece, and it feels like a warm hug. It’s a sad truth, but the trick is to welcome reality with open arms, and try to find cracks in which the light can reach in. The ending features vocals similarly garbled as seen in the above songs, but this one has a strong undercurrent of hope in its brazen honesty.
12. Find Me Here
This song is a beautiful contemporary of Crosby, Stills & Nash – I am always a sucker for this consonant vocal harmonies and humming played up against floating guitar chords that sounds like sunshine. All the vocals are harmonized, so it sounds like a chorus of Hayleys singing at once. The rhythmic stops punctuate the phrases well, and the song has a poetic structure that works really well to break up the monotony of the otherwise simplistic patterns. The opening of the choruses help with that too, and I love how sensory-oriented the lyrics are: “Soft like sand / Sift through your hands / Memories we both agree / Are not reality”.
Opening like an action movie, the haunting childlike muffled exhortations begin again, feeling a lot like a dream sequence or a memory. And that’s really apropos, seeing as how this whole album is emphasizing the use of memory and how all of that functions in the wake of loss. There are no written lyrics to this song – just harmonies and piano chords. Sometimes the best message, is just sharing a collection of sounds. Or maybe it’s meant to depict the silence of the ones who have passed on.
14. Just a Lover
Once again, this song begins with a raw demo recording, and then moves into the studio mix. It starts off soft, and then changes into something much grittier after touching on some thinly-veiled Peter Pan references. Listeners in the comments on YouTube even compare it to older Paramore music, in its angst and more energetic vibe. It’s still visceral, but there’s a sense of finality to it now – the perfect closure to the album. “Space and time / Waking hours before I open my eyes / In the morning I feel my heart crack open / One last chorus” brings the song full-circle, as she harkens back to the idea of memory and the way it functions, as seen in the opening track. In this way, it also mimics the rhythm and rationale behind grief – because it’s not a one-and-done process; it’s however many repeated cycles it takes to heal.
Flowers for Vases brings a new understanding to grief and the life that comes after it. My recommendation? Listen to it with a warm cup of tea or cocoa in either early morning or late at night in your comfiest clothes. Reflect on life, where you’ve been, and where you’re going. Let this music seep into your soul, and heal the wounds you’ve never dared to clean before.
Listen to Hayley Williams’ new solo album HERE.
Boston Sports Desk Correspondent