Hayley Williams owns a car, though she prefers to ride her bike. If you live in Franklin, Tennessee, you probably know this by now, because she pilots the thing – a beige, kid-size rattletrap with a basket on the front – all around her hometown, chatting up the locals and stopping in at places like Puckett’s Grocery and the Ivey Cake bakery. She paid $60 for it at a nearby thrift store. It’s probably worth $30.
Williams also owns a house in town, and though it’s certainly worth more than her bike, it’s not much flashier: a modest stone number with a detached garage and big, thick double-glazed windows. It looks more like your craft-obsessed aunt’s summer retreat than the palace of rock’s reigning flame-haired siren. Though she’s rarely in it, Williams is planning on doing the house up for Halloween, with grand schemes of turning the front yard into a replica of the titular burial ground in Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary.” She hopes to accomplish this, she tells me, with some plastic tombstones she’s got stored in the trunk of her car, and a bag of cotton balls. Needless to say, there is still much work to be done.
Those are just some of the things I learned after spending the afternoon with Williams (and her Paramore mates) in their hometown of Franklin, a sleepy-yet-spirited hamlet outside of Nashville, and I’m not telling them to you for any particular reason other than to illustrate a rather salient point: Paramore are not rock stars. They just happen to play them on their new album, the jaw-droppingly good, to-the-brink-and-back Brand New Eyes (due Tuesday), a brave and bold effort which just might end up being the best big rock record released this year.
And, no, I’m not quite sure how this happened, either.
Because, truth be told, I didn’t think Paramore had it in them. They are shockingly young – at 24, bassist Jeremy Davis is the group’s elder statesman – exceedingly normal, and decidedly small-town. There is nothing in their file to suggest they’re capable of things they pull off on Eyes, whether it be the snarling guitars on album-opener “Careful” and first single “Ignorance,” the beautiful restraint of quieter tunes like “The Only Exception” and (especially) “Misguided Ghosts,” or Williams’ soul-scything holler on closing track “All I Wanted” (which is about as close to a vocal exorcism as you’re likely to hear on any album, let alone one released by Fueled by Ramen). They have evolved from a cloying pop-punk outfit into a solid, bombastic, honest-to-goodness rock band, a transformation which is, a) more difficult to pull off than you’d imagine, and b) pretty darn admirable.
In short, they’ve grown up, or, as Williams puts it, “matured, not ma-toored.“
Back home in Franklin, Paramore are still very much kids. Williams’ bike is rickety, her car is covered in band stickers, and most of her clothes are bought at Goodwill (or most of her stage clothes, at least). Brothers Josh and Zac Farro tool around town on scooters, blaring their horns and waving at confused locals. New guitarist Taylor York carries with him a vibe of indie cool but is very much a 19-year-old, prone to prolonged bits of silence and/or incredibly goofy outbursts. Davis talks with eyes wide about racing ATVs around muddy Tennessee trails and blowing stuff up with his friends. (He also has perhaps the most embarrassing AOL e-mail address I’ve ever seen.) These are not the ingredients with which great rock bands are made. There’s no swagger, no style, no threat of imminent danger. There’s just openness – of the plain-faced, no-frills, Southern variety.
And openness is a big part of what makes Brand News Eyes so great. Williams despises deception and phoniness in all their forms (in his review of the album, Spin‘s Mikael Wood astutely compares her to Holden Caufield, the no-B.S. protagonist of “The Catcher in the Rye”), and so she spends large chunks of the album railing against them. But she’s also unashamed – or, more precisely, unafraid – to take stands on causes most cynics would snicker at: love (“The Only Exception”), brotherhood (“Looking Up”) and self-empowerment (“Feeling Sorry”), to name just a few. She does these things not because she has to, but because she wants to. She is part Rosie the Riveter, part Joan of Arc, with a little bit of Marge Simpson’s moral indignation thrown in for good measure. And like it or not, she’s not trying to hide it, not for a second.
Musically, Brand New Eyes makes no apologies, either. The songs don’t hide the fact that they were born out of internal strife. In fact, this fact is only emphasized by the sequencing, which starts off angry and punchy (the tunes written during the band’s low period in Franklin), and closes quietly, even happily (the tunes written after the band had hashed out their differences in a make-or-break bitch session aided by producer Rob Cavallo). There’s very little of the old, DayGlo Paramore on display here. That’s been replaced instead with increasingly complex songwriting and a newfound interest in exploring the quieter side of things. They’ve grown up, and they’re not even going to try to hide it.
That’s why no other band could’ve made Brand New Eyes. It’s an inherently Southern record, and not in the Skynyrd way. Rather, there is an antebellum charm and grace to it, a refined (and admirable) restraint, even when the guitars are interlocking to the heavens, the backbeat is walloping against the walls, and Williams is singing for the rafters. There’s small-town sentiment and big-town ambitions. I’m not sure any of this was intentional, though I’m willing to bet it wasn’t. Paramore don’t do intentional; they just do rational, which makes them pretty lousy rock stars, but a pretty great rock band.