Less than a year ago, Hayley Williams lightened the first weeks of lockdown with ‘Petals for Armor’, two powerful, experimental EPs exploring her vulnerability and loss. She accompanied the release with a series of videos tracing themes of death and rebirth through visceral visuals, laying herself bare. The overall effect of that project was to present Hayley Williams as not only a solo artist, but as a woman anew.
For the last few months, Williams appeared to be taking a well-deserved rest. Not so: after teasing a new project and announcing the imminent release of ‘FLOWERS for VASES / descansos’ on Twitter on February 4, she dropped the entire album in one go at midnight on February 5. The 14 tracks, which she calls a prequel rather than a follow-up, delve into themes first toyed with on ‘Petals for Armor’; grief and acceptance wrapped in a cocoon of petals. The cover art, Williams in a jacuzzi swathed in red and white water and smoke, steps away from the imagery into new, opulent territory.
‘FLOWERS for VASES / descansos’ was written, played and recorded entirely at home by Williams, the only helping hands coming in for the mastering, mixing and producing. The end result is a painful, raw record led by acoustic guitar that still holds onto some of the ethereality of ‘Petals for Armor’. A descanso is a cross placed at the site of a violent death: they’re often found on roadsides. While the motif seems like an afterthought in the album’s title, an unnecessary appendage, it neatly summarises the album itself. ‘FLOWERS…’ is a living testament to personal loss – both of people and relationships. Every corner of the record breathes with it.
In some ways, ‘FLOWERS…’ is a return to basics for Williams. It gives her voice the space and platform it deserves to crack and whisper, still full. There’s a focus on the lyrics that was, in some ways, absent on ‘Petals…’, too. On ‘First Thing To Go’, she dives into the specifics of death: “first thing to go was the sound of his voice”. On ‘Aysystole’ (another word for cardiac arrest) she cries “revive, revive, revive asystole, asystole”. She’s processing a loss in real time, generously sharing her vulnerability, allowing us a window into her therapy.
In a statement, Williams confessed that the writing and release of this album has been cathartic: “there’s no better way to tackle these individual subjects other than holistically. The ways I’ve been given time (forcibly, really) to stew on certain pains long enough to understand that they in fact, need to be released indefinitely,” she goes on, “I may never have been offered such a kindness; an opportunity to tend to the seeds I’d planted, to harvest, and to weed or prune what is no longer alive, in order to make space for the living.”
The result is a record full of distinct tracks buoyed by an overall theme and intention. Flecked with sadness but moved on by growth, ‘FLOWERS…’ is healing in real time, Williams discovering things about herself at the same time we do. There are touches of techniques that she was playing with on ‘Petals…’, like moments of repetition in ‘My Limb’. For the most part, however, it’s untouched. Moments like Williams being annoyed by a plane overhead (“are you fucking kidding me”) give it yet more humanity, reminiscent of the rawness of Fiona Apple’s ‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters’.
On ‘FLOWERS for VASES/descansos’, Williams boldly dives into herself, exploring losses, failures and questions with an honesty that is ostensibly for her but serves a wider purpose. There will be a lot of albums released that were recorded or germinated in lockdown – not all of them good. But Williams’ small recognitions of the mundanity of her life (“I take my pills, every night and in the morning” on ‘Over Those Hills’) mixed with her revelations about the broader questions (“there’s no such thing as good grief” on simple acoustic ‘Good Grief’) combine not only to form a full album of distinct songs, but to create an image of a life, of a person still learning to live with themselves but finding small moments of joy.
READ MORE: Growing up with Hayley Williams