Tennessee rock band Paramore released its third album, Brand New Eyes, last Tuesday, and if sales projections hold true, it will enter the charts in the No. 1 spot. Paramore, fronted by 20-year-old belter Hayley Williams, is often referred to as an emo band or a punk band, but those designations fall short. The group's songs are full of unresolved hurt and anger, but they're ultimately too galvanizing and upbeat to feel quite emo, too luxurious and windswept to feel quite punk.
Williams co-writes most of Paramore's songs with lead guitarist Josh Farro, and she is the group's star. She favors beat-up sneakers, shrunken tees, and, on formal occasions, torn stockings and ironic bowties. Her hair color changes frequently, but it's typically dyed some intense, confrontational shade of orange. Her bangs zigzag choppily across her brow as though a high-priced hairstylist has attended to them with a disposable razor.
If the hairdo and the stockings make Williams look prickly and disturbed, however, her smile undoes the effect. Her two front teeth are a smidge too big and gapped ever so slightly, giving her an adorable aw-shucks quality. The hairdo screams bedroom-door-slammer; the smile is the sort that earns a kid a $25 check from grandma every Christmas. In Paramore's music, the hair battles the smile.
Brand New Eyes is the group's best record yet, and one of 2009's most exhilarating releases. That sense of exhilaration has less to do with the shock of the new than a reassuring, masterfully executed blast of the familiar. The record was produced by Rob Cavallo, who has helmed gloriously grandiose albums by Green Day and My Chemical Romance, and after some initial thrashing about in dark, cramped spaces ("Careful," "Ignorance"), Brand New Eyes breaks into a series of stadium-size vistas, full of cathartic rushes and sudden, dramatic plummets. "Feeling Sorry" and the torrentially pining "All I Wanted" are exemplary throwbacks to the punk-flecked pop of Blink-182 and Avril Lavigne (with one major difference: Those artists often sang in stylized whines whereas Williams' intonation is strong and firm-footed).
In her lyrics, Williams is a throwback, too, out of step with her mostly male peers on the contemporary emo-punk circuit, who fill lyrics with wordy, hard-to-parse riddles; shrieking, frantic confessions; and hand-wringing meta-commentary. Panic at the Disco spent the first few songs on its debut album pre-emptively imagining what message-board-posting haters would say about the songs. Williams is passionately unmeta, her lyrics transparent and direct. This reflects her deep conviction that ironic detachment is a gateway drug to its soul-corroding cousins, disingenuousness and dishonesty. As Williams sings here, on "Brick by Boring Brick": "If it's not real/ you can't hold it in your hand/ you can't feel it with your heart/ and I won't believe it." The villains in her songs are straight from teen-angst Central Casting: control freaks, hypocrites, trust-abusers, and jerks. Ditto her big themes, abandonment and loss. If you feel out of touch with today's youth—with their elaborate, inscrutable lexicon of hugs and text-message acronyms—take some solace in the fact that the teens who worship Paramore are upset about pretty much the same things that bugged you at 15.
The most au courant thing about Hayley Williams might be her upbringing—she grew up in a Christian household outside of Nashville, Tenn., a background she shares with fellow pop-rock superstars Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift (who moved to the state at age 13). From Cyrus and Swift to Katy Perry and Kelly Clarkson, there's clearly something in the baptismal water these days—the top of the pop heap is crawling with Christian girls. (Jesus Christ doubtless deserves some credit for this, but perhaps not as much as Nashville vocal coach Brett Manning, who has worked with Cyrus, Swift, and Williams.)
Williams makes angrier music than these girls, but even if she sings a lot about betrayal and despair, she sings just as much about resilience and hope, never sinking below a bedrock level of faith. "Looking Up" tells the story of a band on the edge of dissolution pulling back together. Her description of life on the road is lovely, wide-eyed: "Can you believe we crossed the world while it's asleep?" she sings. "I'd never trade it in, 'cause I've always wanted this." Williams may be a prophet to disaffected teens, but she's disaffected in a motivational-speaker sort of way. Even at her most accusatory and wounded, her songs are pep talks—to her fans and to herself. She doesn't screech or hyperventilate. She doesn't moan. She's tough. Hysteria is for boys.