Friday, December 11th, 2020

Hayley Williams – Dead Horse

We continue Amnesty Week with another artist familiar to all…


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[6.86]

John Seroff: Like millions of us, Hayley Williams entered 2020 with every reasonable expectation of a breakout year. With a debut solo album as exhilaratingly powerful and creative as ever, an army of devoted fans, and a brigade of younger artists (including Jukebox faves Phoebe Bridgers, Soccer Mommy, Mitski, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus) hailing her as an emo-pop elder statesman, it would require something like, I don’t know, an international pandemic to slow this train down! We know how that turned out, and Williams’ frustration is felt up front on the excellent “Dead Horse.” The song begins with a brief mea culpa voicemail apologizing for the late delivery of the demo, as she “was in a depression.” Girl, same. But, counter to the song’s lyrics, “Horse” is among the more Paramoresque and playfully upbeat of Petals for Armor‘s playlist, a tongue-in-cheek self-flagellation on the foolishness of holding on to a relationship or, perhaps, an ideal for too long. For a 2020 we’re all looking forward to dropping like it’s hot, this is as good of an Auld Lang Syne as we’re likely to get.
[8]

Tim de Reuse: A song about climbing out of a depressive, repetitive slump, with an ominous “pretty cool I’m still alive” before the first chorus, all against punchy nu-disco production, jaunty melodies, lyrical cliches, and strained chants of “ya ya ya?”. The frivolity is genius. This is what you want to feel when you’re clawing your way out of something bad.
[9]

John S. Quinn-Puerta: Petals For Armor is easily one of my ten favorite albums of the year. Its songs drip with tension around trauma and the loneliness it drives us to, making it almost too timely. But “Dead Horse” has two hooves in this album and two in After Laughter. It’s more radio-friendly than “Leave It Alone” or “Cinnamon,” and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, I can’t help but feel like Williams has sung this “silly little song” a few times before. That said, it’s still catchy as all hell, and thoroughly dipped in Williams’ sugary cynicism. 
[6]

Alfred Soto: Like many debut solo albums, Hayley Williams’ specialized in what her touring band only skimmed, in her case ruminative lyrics set to programmed beats. But not much differentiates “Dead Horse” from what producer/co-writer Taylor York had whipped up on 2017’s After Laughter, only without the pep: no matter how attractive Williams’ vocal melody, the chorus is a goddamn cliche meaningless in or out of context.
[4]

Nortey Dowuona: Synth tones clatter all over one another as a stretched-out bass is pushed in by eggshell drums. Hayley runs headfirst into the net of bass, the eggshell drums pushing her back. She keeps trying to push through, the synth tones sticking tightly to her voice and stretching it to near breaking, until she cuts every tie and is bounced back firmly into the air. She falls on her bad leg, while her good leg is stuck in the synth tones.
[6]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: The drum track is a spin cycle, folding in on itself as Williams does the same. It’s a psych evaluation in the clothes of a workout. While elsewhere on Petals for Armor she explored new stylistic ground, “Dead Horse” is like a triumphant reprise of the entire bag of tricks that made After Laughter work so well. It sometimes feels like too much– maybe I’ve just been burned by too many western artists plucking out African styles for exotic flair, but those bridge chants are deeply unnecessary. But when her aim is true, Williams balances her heartbreak and growth over one of her most compelling grooves.
[7]

Kayla Beardslee: “Dead Horse” is the poppiest and most accessible track on Hayley’s album, but I also love it for its lyrics: “Every morning I wake up from a dream of you, holding me / Underwater (Is that a dream or a memory?) / Held my breath for a decade / Dyed my hair blue to match my lips / Cool of me to try (Pretty cool I’m still alive).” These lines do a great job playing with imagery — being held and holding breath, blue water to blue hair to blue lips, the doubled surprise of the second and last lines. And Hayley admits incredibly raw personal details in a way that seems nonchalant, but in reality was probably considered and written with excruciating precision — I mean, just look at how much narrative is packed into that handful of lines. There’s humor in the wry self-awareness of the chorus, where she simultaneously lingers on the past and calls herself out for doing so, but there are also serious moments like the gut-punch of a line “I got what I deserved / I was the other woman first.”
[8]

Edward Okulicz: The chorus makes me think Hayley Williams is going in the same (very good) directions Alanis Morissette went, and the verses are perhaps the purest distillation of disappointment (in oneself and in someone else) I can think of. She wields the cliches like a weapon, knowing she’s backed, and backed herself into a corner. It’s wonderful, but also rather hard to take due to how the song so strongly makes me want to empathise. But like most emotional releases, far better out than in. 
[8]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: If Hayley Williams’s goal was to mirror these trite lyrics and make this drag on and on and on, she succeeded. While After Laughter was a welcome change of pace for Paramore, this song — with similar new-wave ambitions and confessional songwriting — is bloodless and stodgy, constantly on the precipice of a hook, or an incisive lyric, or anything memorable. I’m getting flashbacks to the faux-fun, fully tedious “art” pop of Love This Giant.
[2]

Katherine St Asaph: I liked Lilith Fair Hayley much more than I like “Stressed Out” Hayley. “A silly little song” should just be a lyric, not an ambition ceiling.
[4]

Ian Mathers: The space (and movement) between “and your shitty little song” to “now you get another song” really sums up what happens on “Dead Horse” (and to some degree on its parent album); at least now she recognizes the horse is dead, even if she can’t help getting a few, futile last kicks in on her way out. Luckily here the music doesn’t match the message — it’s much zippier, and even manages to make the recourse to “yah yah yah”s work for it.
[7]

Juana Giaimo: Petals for Armor tells a story about healing, which always takes a long time, and one phase of healing is anger and resentment. On “Dead Horse,” Hayley Williams delivers lines full of spite (her voice seems to literally slap every time she sings “dead horse!”) and irony (the way she mutters “pretty cool that I’m still alive” seems to be taken straight from After Laughter), while also reflecting on her part of the blame. You can’t unsee the bitterness of her look at the camera when she sings “I was the other woman first.” Although she seems overconfident and cold when she sings “when I said goodbye, I hope you cried”, I hear a lot of pain, as if that line could be followed with “as I cried.”
[8]

Anna Katrina Lockwood: This song has given me a whole pile of decade-old feelings. Despite its complexity, “Dead Horse” is a zippy little three-minute listen, absolutely bounding through its considerable dynamic range. There’s a lot to love in the arrangement — I really like Hayley’s vocal tone decisions, but my favorite detail has to be the Eventide’d second drum set that pops up for the occasional color fill. The thematic motif of her voice message in the intro, an apology for an obligation she missed due to a depressive episode, is so nicely fulfilled through the song. This isn’t the song for the fuck-my-life moment immediately after the breakup, but the fuck-it-all moment later on, when you’re coming out of the depression and trying to wholly reclaim your life. 
[9]

Tobi Tella: There are so many admissions and callbacks for longtime fans here, from the curious mention of being held underwater, to the gut-punch reference to the affair that started the marriage, to the heartbreaking recontextualization of of the song they sang along to in the car, proving to 13-year-old me definitively that love isn’t real (alternative and funnier interpretation: shade at those hackneyed-ass New Found Glory songs she featured on). There’s also a universality to the lyric. Writing a kiss-off to a trifling man is not exactly new at this point. It’s so much more difficult to give a warts-and-all dressing-down that includes yourself, because all you had to do was leave; of feeling forced to blame yourself for all of someone else’s bad actions because you just sat there; of finally getting to embrace your freedom but being weighed down by years of regret. That last “and now you get another song” is perfect, because it truly feels like baring her soul in this medium is the only way out of passivity to achieve peace and healing. It’s music that demands making.
[10]

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One Response to “Hayley Williams – Dead Horse”

  1. I couldn’t get my thoughts together on this one, but generally I came out somewhere between Edward and Joshua. My Hayley Williams Trust Meter is high enough that I’m willing to accept that she made these lyrics trite and cliched on purpose to make a larger point, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I enjoy listening to it, which is too bad because musically I like it a lot.