The recently released Chibok girls reunited with their families amidst laughter and tears in the Nigerian capital of Abuja. Still, 113 girls are being held by Boko Haram militants.
Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
After more than three years in captivity, 82 of the Chibok schoolgirls have been reunited with their families amid tears, laughter, music and dancing. On an emotional day in the Nigerian capital city, Abuja, the young women and their parents wept as they embraced.
Some groups sank to their knees, giving praise and praying.
“Today I thank God, my daughter is alive,” Yahi Bulata told NPR’s Ofeibea Quist-Arcton as he hugged his now 21-year-old daughter, Comfort Bulus Bulata. He said he hoped she would now be able to continue her education. Mothers sang a song of thanks.
Jumping for joy, dancing and singing with delight, Godiya Joshua described it as “Christmas Day and New Year” rolled in one, before being reunited with her eldest child, Esther.
The 276 Chibok schoolgirls were abducted in the dead of night from their doems by Boko Haram militants in April 2014, prompting international outrage and the Bring Back Our Girls campaign — backed by former first lady Michelle Obama. The girls who were reunited with their families Saturday were part of a recent exchange brokered by the Nigerian government with the help of the government of Switzerland, the Red Cross and other NGOs.
An initial group of 21 was released in October and was reunited with their schoolmates Saturday. The young women sang and danced separately and together.
Despite the celebratory atmosphere, 113 of the Chibok girls are still being held by the terrorist group. According to Nigerian psychologist Fatima Akilu, head of the Neem Foundation helping survivors of Boko Haram’s extreme violence, the girls symbolize a much greater problem in troubled northeastern Nigeria. She specializes in deradicalization and reintegration and says her foundation is helping hundreds of people —girls, boys, men and women — who’ve survived captivity, like the Chibok girls, but are not in the public eye.
“A lot of people are not aware of the scale of the problem,” Akilu told Quist-Arcton. “Resources should be scaled up to include the voiceless victims that don’t really have this big megaphone that has highlighted their plight.” According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of other children are still missing in Northeast Nigeria, though the Chibok girls have gotten the most attention.
There are also lingering questions about the status of the girls who have been freed. Though the 82 girls released two weeks ago are seeing their families today, they will not go home with them to remote, rural Chibok. They are to remain in the care of the government, for medical and psychological evaluation, as well as military debriefings, followed by a rehabilitation and reintegration program.
As NPR has reported previously, 21 other girls who were released last year are still in government care as well. “The Nigerian government maintains that these are security precautions to protect the girls from the stigma, ostracism and discrimination commonly faced by those returning from Boko Haram captivity.”
Nigeria’s Minister of Women Affairs, Aisha Jummai Alhassan, dismissed criticisms that the freed young women were being kept from their families. She said their parents can visit them at any time, and that the young women are there by choice.
“It is easier for them to get over the trauma while outside Chibok,” Alhassan told journalists last week.
NPR’s Ofeibea Quist-Arcton contributed to this report from Abuja.
New regulations from the European Union aim to discourage young people from picking up smoking. New laws in the U.K. go even further.
In recent months, some Brits have expressed their distaste for European Union regulations — a frustration that helped motivate the Brexit vote last summer.
But this weekend, new regulations on the tobacco industry came into force in the United Kingdom, and they go even further than what an EU directive required.
The Tobacco Products Directive was revised by the EU a year ago to impose new restrictions on tobacco products in hopes of deterring smoking, especially among young people. The restrictions include the banning of flavored cigarettes that mask the smell and taste of tobacco, and the addition of larger warnings and graphic photos of some of the health risks. The EU cites evidence that pictorial warnings have been shown to contribute to the reduction of smoking rates in Canada and Brazil.
There are also new rules regulating the amount of nicotine that e-cigarettes may contain, something the directive says was previously unregulated. There will also be new packaging and labeling rules for e-cigarettes.
All of the regulations were set to go into effect Saturday, one year after they passed, to give businesses time to clear out old stock.
The U.K. has decided to go even further than the EU in regulating tobacco products with a rule that standardizes cigarette packaging. All cigarettes in the U.K. must now be sold in green packaging with graphic warning labels, with the brand name printed in a standard typeface. The BBC reports that some have called the new standardized cartons “the ugliest color in the world.”
The rules will also ban the selling of “half packs” of 10 cigarettes, setting the minimum at 20.
Charities devoted to fighting cancer and other diseases linked to smoking applauded the new rules. The British Lung Foundation tweeted, “Every person discouraged from smoking could be a life saved. Standardized packaging is a positive step. Now we need a tobacco control plan.” Cancer Research UK says it is currently investing in studies to “evaluate the impact” of the standardized packaging.
Some critics of the new restrictions say they are “infantalizing.” Simon Clark, director of the smoker’s rights group Forest, released a statement this week, saying that the rules are counter-productive. “The idea that people smoke because of the packaging is absurd. There’s no evidence that plain packaging has any impact on youth smoking rates,” Clark says.
Others fear that the new restrictions on e-cigarettes will encourage people to go back to regular cigarettes, or will buy products on the black market.
Rodney Stotts walks across the roof of the Matthew Henson Earth Conservation Center with one of his hawks. A former drug dealer, he is now a falconer — one of only 30 African-American falconers in the U.S., he says.
On an overcast late-spring afternoon, a group of bird lovers from the Earth Conservation Corps are in a boat on Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia River, and point out an osprey circling overhead. “This is like their summer vacation spot and where they have their young,” says Bob Nixon, in the boat. “Then they spend most of their lives in the Amazon.”
It wasn’t so long ago that the ospreys – and other large birds of prey known as raptors – avoided this place. The Anacostia, often called Washington’s forgotten river, was too polluted to support wildlife. Nearly nine miles long, the river flows from Maryland into the Potomac, but became infamous in the second half of the 20th century as one of the most neglected, trash-choked waterways in the United States – a blighted river amid blighted neighborhoods.
Bob Nixon, a filmmaker and conservationist, started the Earth Conservation Corps 25 years ago.
But in recent years, the Anacostia has seen a rebirth. Thanks to the efforts of the Earth Conservation Corps — which Nixon, a filmmaker and conservationist, started 25 years ago — there are now four osprey nests on the river’s Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge. “We’ve turned this into a raptor hotel,” says Nixon.
There’s shad and bullhead catfish in the river for the ospreys to hunt. And from time to time, a bald eagle may even swoop in.
“What the eagles do, they watch the osprey hunt and once the osprey catch a fish, the eagles take it from them,” says ECC staffer Twan Woods. The eagles’ presence is due to the corps’ efforts as well: The group helped reintroduce the bird to Washington after decades of absence.
It all started with a long-ago promise Nixon made to Dian Fossey, the American primatologist who worked to protect endangered mountain gorillas and was murdered in Rwanda in 1985.
Fossey had offered Nixon the rights to her life story in exchange for a year of his life – he had to devote it to a conservation project. After Fossey’s death, Nixon, who’d already made a documentary about her, co-produced the 1988 Oscar-nominated film Gorillas in the Mist, starring Sigourney Weaver.
“When we finished that movie,” he recalls, “I kept thinking I should pay Dian that debt.”
At home in Malibu, a New York Times story about a polluted Anacostia tributary caught Nixon’s eye. “That sounds good!” he thought. And in 1992, he flew to Washington to get started on what he thought would be a year of work.
A view of the Naval Yard Complex, along the Anacostia River, in 2015.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
‘I’m America’s nightmare’
“Those were some serious times, rough times,” recalls Burrell Duncan, who was among the first volunteers Nixon recruited from Southeast D.C.’s Valley Green housing project. The choices facing kids in Valley Green in the early 1990s were stark.
“You could be three things,” Duncan says — “a drug dealer, a killer or you could play sports.”
When Nixon, who grew up on Philadelphia’s Main Line, landed in D.C. seeking volunteers to haul garbage out of the water, “I thought it was a joke someone was playing on us,” Duncan says. “What is this Caucasian doing? Don’t he know where he is?” He worried that Nixon might be killed. “He drove a blue Jetta,” he says. “He stuck out like a sore thumb.”
Anthony Satterthwaite, one of the original Earth Conservation Corps members, holds up a photograph of what part of the Anacostia River looked like in 1992.
Rodney Stotts, then 22, was another of the early volunteers. “I was a drug dealer,” he says. “Typical D.C. youth, drug dealing, everything that went along with it, hustling.”
He didn’t sign on for the money — he was already making plenty. “When I was selling an eight-ball of cocaine, it would cost you $125” – more than the $100 he’d make in an entire week slogging through the trash and muck of the Lower Beaverdam Creek, the Anacostia tributary Nixon wanted to clean up. But Stotts joined because he needed a check stub to rent an apartment.
In the first three months, a team of seven young men and two women waded into the creek and dragged out everything from car engines to sofas, bikes — and 5,000 tires. “They cleaned every scrap out of that creek,” Nixon says.
It was hard work with no prestige, and their friends in Valley Green gave them a hard time. But “we started feeling a sense of accomplishment and pride,” says Anthony Satterthwaite, another of the original volunteers.
That sense of accomplishment was key. One thing Nixon quickly realized was that the polluted waterway was only part of the picture. The obstacles his team faced in their daily lives were formidable.
“I’m America’s nightmare,” one of them told Nixon. “No one ever thinks anything good could come out of a place like this.”
At the Earth Conservation Corps headquarters, photos are displayed showing young corps members who lost their lives over the years.
In those early days, it wasn’t unusual for the volunteers to arrive to work armed, Duncan says. “It was guns on the river, and it was attitudes,” he says. “People were uncomfortable with the fact of being in a creek. You don’t know what you’re gonna run into – who you’re gonna run into.”
Few of them had known each other before starting with the Earth Conservation Corps, but little by little, their sense of camaraderie grew along with their sense of achievement. Meanwhile, the outside world wasn’t changing: “You could come to a safe haven and be as positive as you want,” Satterthwaite says. “But we still gotta go home.”
Violence and tragedy intruded. Monique Johnson, one of the first corps members, was murdered four months after they started cleaning up the creek. Other lives were cut short. Of the first nine volunteers, only four survive today.
“We buried 26 corps members in 25 years,” Nixon says. One was beaten to death “because he sat on a bench someone didn’t want him to be sitting on.” Others succumbed to illness. All, Nixon says, died in one way or another due to the circumstances of extreme poverty.
He and the surviving and new corps members kept working. They wanted to keep making a difference and make sure their friends would not be forgotten.
Students help raise the base of a new osprey nest, welded from parts including decommissioned firearms seized by the D.C. police.
‘We was just as endangered’
In 1994, two years into the Earth Conservation Corps’ work, Washington was in the midst of a crack epidemic, with a murder rate topping 400 a year. At that low point in the city’s recent history, Nixon had the idea to bring the bald eagle back to the nation’s capital. It had disappeared decades earlier.
Between 1994 and 1998, members of the corps raised and released 16 bald eagles. Anthony Satterthwaite and Burrell Duncan fed the very first eaglets – hatched in Wisconsin and delivered to Washington to start the reintroduction program – by hiding in the woods and sending fish via a clothesline pulley system into the boxes where the baby birds were kept high up in a poplar tree. They couldn’t let the young birds see them, for fear that they’d imprint on humans.
When the birds were old enough, the boxes were opened.
“To see these birds fly away from this box they were in for three months – just joy, man,” says Satterthwaite. “Just joy.”
Ospreys nest on the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge spanning the Anacostia River. (Right) Four osprey eggs are inside the nest.
They named the eagles in memory of their fallen friends — Monique Johnson and the other corps members they’d lost over the years.
“We wasn’t supposed to live to see the age of 21,” says Satterthwaite. “We was just as endangered as this majestic bird. So it became very powerful and we connected the two, and that’s why we started our raptor education program with Rodney Stotts.”
This year, there are three eagle’s nests in Washington. A naming contest was held for one of the eaglets, which hatched March 15 in southwest Washington. The winning name: Spirit. Its parents are Liberty and Justice.
“We no longer have to name them after dead colleagues,” says Nixon.
‘Get out your own way’
“Me and Rodney had a confrontation back in the day,” says D.C. police officer James Thomas, better known as “Hammer.” “That’s how we became friends. He’s dealing drugs and I’m the police… put that together. We had an impact on each other.”
(Top) The Matthew Henson Earth Conservation Center along the Anacostia River is named in honor of the first African-American explorer to reach the North Pole. The ECC hosts events for local kids here. (Bottom) Rodney Stotts shows one of his hawks, Petunia, to students like Anthony Price, 15, to help them face fears.
He’s standing on a deck outside the Matthew Henson Earth Conservation Center, a facility on the Anacostia named for the first African-American explorer to reach the North Pole, which Henson co-discovered with Robert Peary. Inside, 30 inner city teenagers have just met a raptor for the first time – a red-tailed hawk named Sky, wearing bells, attached to a short line and handled by Rodney Stotts.
“If you’re afraid and you put this bird on your hand,” Stotts tells the kids, “you’ve just done one of the biggest things you can, which is overcome your fear.” There are gasps and screams, and some laughs, as giddy volunteers step forward to hold the bird on their arms.
The former cocaine dealer who found his way to the Earth Conservation Corps more than two decades ago as a means of obtaining a check stub is now a licensed falconer – one of only 30 African-American falconers in the entire U.S., he tells the kids.
“You’re the only one that gets in your own way,” he says. “Get out your own way, that’s what I had to do.”
The kids are here as part of a D.C. police program called Youth Creating Change, which Thomas says encourages them to “face their fears, help them get a job, earn community service hours.” Not only are they meeting Stotts and learning about his hawks today, they’re also helping build the bones of a new osprey nest – welded out of decommissioned firearms seized by the D.C. police.
Cyriela Batou, 15, is the first student brave enough to hold a hawk named Sky. She screams when the hawk flaps its wings, but says later the experience made her happy and she’d do it again.
“Rodney can connect with the kids,” Thomas says. “He’s been in poverty, he’s been a part of all that. His story has an impact on the youth.”
Stotts — by his own admission “not much of a people person” — says educating the kids is gratifying. “You realize who you used to be and all you used to cause is pain and tears,” he says, “and now you’re causing laughter and joy.”
But he’d always rather be outside. Working with the birds and other animals is what’s saved his life, he says.
“I’d have been dead,” he says. “When I’m outside, I can go off and this great blue heron took off over my head and put my mind somewhere else. These fish swimming up the stream over here, the beaver with her babies going out now from stuff that, when you first got here, was just trash – all trash, you ain’t seen no signs of life – so how can you sit here mad and want to fight, when all you see is beauty come back? That makes no sense to me. So I couldn’t do an inside type of job. If I didn’t get into animals, I’d have died in the street.”
Bob Nixon encouraged Stotts to become a falconer; he happens to be one himself. His own upbringing included a stint at a falconry center in England, where he learned as a teenager about birds of prey.
Rodney Stotts talks with students as part of a D.C. police program to expose youth to career and community service opportunities.
But even with Nixon’s support, Stotts’ path to falconry wasn’t obstacle-free.
“I was told, ‘Black people don’t fly birds, y’all eat ’em,'” he recalls. ” ‘These are hawks, owls and falcons – not chickens.'”
Stotts ignored the resistance and the racism – “OK, fine, no problem,” he says now – and remained focused on what was important to him. “I always loved animals,” he says.
He’s living in Maryland now, where he keeps horses, birds and other creatures, some of which he’s named after loved ones who’ve died. And he’s started his own program, though he keeps working with the Earth Conservation Corps.
He’s also poised to become a master falconer, and says he’s expecting his license next year.
“Now,” says Nixon, “I’m Rodney’s apprentice.”
Rodney Stotts carries Sky, a rehabilitated hawk, up the stairs at the Matthew Henson Center.
Schapelle Corby’s trial was covered feverishly by the Australian media and broadcast on multiple television networks. Her guilty verdict and twenty year sentence caused outrage and calls for boycotts of Bali, a popular tourist destination for Australians.
It’s not entirely clear why Schapelle Corby’s case so captivated a nation.
The Australian woman was 27 in 2004 when she was caught with 9 pounds of marijuana in her bag upon landing in Bali for a two-week vacation. She was convicted in 2005, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. That sentence was ultimately reduced, and in 2014 she was released on parole. Now, she is set to return home to Australia this week.
Before her arrest, Corby was an ordinary young woman, working in her family’s fish and chip shop in the suburbs of Australia’s Gold Coast.
And yet, as TheSydney Morning Herald reports, hundreds of thousands of Australians watched in 2005 as Corby tearfully awaited her verdict. The Associated Press compared the “media bonanza” of her trial to that surrounding O.J. Simpson’s. Corby has inspired an HBO documentary, “Free Schapelle” tee-shirts, and a call for a boycott of tourism to Bali. Her case inspired diplomatic dramas between Indonesia and Australia, and even a new slang term — to be “schapelled,” or “screwed over, brutally.”
Corby has always maintained her innocence, which might explain in part why her case has captured so much attention. A photogenic young woman, her face was splashed across tabloid covers and television screens. Fiona Connolly, editor-in-chief of Woman’s Day magazine, recently told The Morning Herald, “I was the first person to put Schapelle on a magazine cover. My publisher said, ‘Are you joking me?’ But that issue sold its socks off. She’s a profitable cover star.”
An unauthorized version of Michael Buble’s song Home played on Australian radio stations during her trial, mixing in quotes from Corby. Far from being upset about the remix, Buble told TheSun Herald he was glad his song was being used to cover the case.
“This song was written for people who are going through hard times such as this. I hope she can find her way home,” Buble told the paper in 2005.
Some have speculated that Corby’s case became sensationalized in part because she was so “ordinary.” As Australia consular affairs expert Alex Oliver told the Morning Herald, “It could have been me or my child.” Many Australians travel to Bali (1.14 million in 2016, according to Traveller.com) and perhaps Corby was simply easy to project anxieties on. Australian travelers now often wrap their suitcases in cling film to prevent tampering with luggage, according the Herald.
But support for Corby sometimes took on ugly, nationalist tones.
In an academic paper in The International Journal of the Humanities, media studies professor Anthony Lambert argued that Corby became a symbol of national identity for Australia. She represented whiteness, female vulnerability, and perhaps the suggestion of “Western ways of being under threat” as she faced trial in a foreign country, in a foreign language. A terror attack in Bali just two years earlier had killed 88 Australians. Lambert argues this history was fresh in the minds of those who tuned in to watch as Corby sobbed, at the mercy of a foreign system.
At times, the coverage became overtly racist. Lambert recalls Sydney radio talk show host Malcolm T. Elliot comparing the Indonesian judges to monkeys, saying, “They are straight out of the trees.”
As for the woman at the center of all of this, she remains mysterious.Though Corby co-wrote a memoir, published in 2006, she has mostly shied away from the media attention. Her family has asked for privacy as she prepares to return home, but one can only guess it will be difficult to find. As the editor of Woman’s Day told the Morning Herald this week, “I’d be sitting next to her on the plane if I could.”
Paramore blah blah
Lindsey Byrnes/Courtesy of the artist
Lindsey Byrnes/Courtesy of the artist
What holds Paramore together? The beloved Tennessee band’s decade-plus career is littered with false starts and laborious successes: More musicians have left the band than remain inside of it, and those who have departed did so caustically. Lifelong friendships have ended to keep this pop-punk powerhouse alive, and yet, its remaining members now find themselves at a place of critical reinvention. Being forced to constantly reevaluate what Paramore looks like has made them largely indestructible: When it feels like they’ve got nothing to lose, they shed their skin and become new. In 2017, Paramore is a pop band, far removed from the emo days that created them. They are a pop band that survives and thrives, and it’s been a journey to get here.
At the end of 2010, after founding brothers Josh and Zac Farro left the group, Josh detailed the reasons for his departure on his Blogger. He referred to the pop-punk project as “a manufactured product of a major label,” breaking down a then-muddled understanding of their dynamic: Frontwoman Hayley Williams was (and remains) the only person in Paramore signed to Atlantic Records, which he believed was treated by the label like a solo project with a few hired guns. The remaining members of the group — Williams, guitarist Taylor York and bassist Jeremy Davis — responded to the post in an MTV special, Paramore: The Final Word, essentially confirming most of what Josh said while making irrelevant his most biting claims and revealing that the band would continue on without the Farros.
The last album with Paramore’s then-most familiar lineup, 2009’s Brand New Eyes, would be their last straightforward pop-punk release, and with good reason — their authenticity, the highest form of social capital in Warped Tour world, was being questioned, and rumors of the band’s fracturing abundant. Where Williams and the remaining crew spent most of their time citing Brand New Eyes as the album that brought the band closer than ever, it almost tore them apart. In many ways, it was the most freeing thing that could’ve happened to them because of what came next.
On Brand New Eyes, Paramore had worked with producer Rob Cavallo, a noted pop-punk ringer most famous for his work with My Chemical Romance and Green Day. But in 2013, Paramore brought in producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen (Nine Inch Nails, M83) to record its self-titled album. Meldal-Johnson promised a shift, and shift they did, though perhaps due more to the expanded role of Taylor York. Where Josh Farro had driven much of Paramore’s songwriting in the past, his absence allowed York to take a more prominent creative role. The result was an album which the band dubbed “genre neutral,” a surprising foray into new, straightforward pop music territory that worked to rid them of the four-letter qualifier.
The album’s most notable single, “Ain’t It Fun,” featured some of York’s experimentation, a particular marimba tone that made the song memorable. Williams was intrigued by York’s sensibility and began to push those limitations too: A gospel choir was added to the song’s bridge, a loving nod to the band members’ personal faith and the group’s Tennessee roots. “Ain’t It Fun” stood out among the album’s other singles in both its unique sound and structure, and earned Paramore a Grammy for Best Rock Song.
Historically, the weight put on a self-titled record suggests it’s a band’s definitive work, but Paramore is an album of transition. The pop moves are what made it their best, but even those experiments were punctuated by palm-muted power chords, self-imposed pop-punk safety nets. But it allowed them to identify the ceiling attached to quote-unquote emo music, and as soon as they did, they began to grow beyond it. After Laughter, the band’s fifth studio album, released May 12, is Paramore’s first full-on capital-P pop record.
But before they could get there, there was more turmoil. Bassist Jeremy Davis left the band a few months prior to recording. His departure would instigate a legal battle to determine whether he was an employee of the band or partner in its business — news that concerned Paramore fans worldwide in its familiarity. The issue was resolved last week on unreleased terms, but something sort of miraculous happened along the way: Paramore’s original drummer, Zac Farro, rejoined the group after an ingenious social media reveal ( “I’m Back” limited edition t-shirts.) Farro returned for the album, later asked to join full-time. If there was ever a return-to-roots moment, it’s After Laughter — and it almost didn’t happen.
In an hour-long special with Zane Lowe for Apple Music, the band’s first in-depth interview pre-album release, Williams revealed that Paramore was on the verge of collapse in 2016. The ongoing legal battles, subsequent lineup changes and fractured friendships might’ve made the end feel nigh before, but it was most recently when a breakup was almost realized — because this time, Hayley wanted out. “I was kind of flat-lined,” she revealed to Lowe, “I think that if it weren’t for Taylor, the band would be over. I’m tired of losing friends; I’m tired of doubting myself. Maybe if I’m not doing it at all there won’t be anything to doubt. My heart is tired.” York knew she was battling demons bigger than she had in the past, and could empathize, “There have been so many times I just wanted to quit this band,” he explained. “I could just tell.” In many ways, After Laughter isn’t a record that exists because it had to, but because they fought for it. And they make it known at the very beginning.
When After Laughter begins, it does so with a deceptively joyful gloss. The afro-pop synth of the single “Hard Times,” invites the listener in, only for Williams’ opening lines to cut them down with harsh reality: “All that I want / is to wake up fine / Tell me that I’m alright / that I ain’t gonna die.” Lyrically, Paramore has always been a very transparent band, and while the song’s title might reflect an unpromising political climate, it most directly mirrors Williams’ relationship with mental health. In that Apple Music interview, she revealed she’s recently experienced anxiety and depression for the first time in her life. She established a timeline, noting exactly how recent her battles has been: “Three years ago? No. I don’t know what happened …. It gave me a lot of compassion that I didn’t have before.”
Paramore has never been a challenging band to listen to, and with the new sonic endeavors into extreme pop accessibility, Williams, York and Farro have entered personal territory that hits home in a violently exposed fashion. For the first time, Williams’ pain comes across with frustrating clarity, giving us an almost uncomfortable level of access. It’s in every song — even in its love songs — but most apparent in After Laughter’s ballads. In “26,” at the very center of the album, she sings “Reality will break your heart / Survival will not be the hardest part / It’s keeping all your hopes alive / When the rest of you has died.” That’s proceeded by “Fake Happy,” a song that directly asserts a collective hopelessness with “We’re all so fake happy / And I know fake happy,” later complicating the emotion with the embarrassment not often explored in depression dialogue, the shame of feeling bad and the shame of feeling bad for feeling bad: “Don’t ask me how I’ve been / Don’t make me play pretend.” She mentions crying nine times across After Laughter‘s 12 songs. Allusions to death and dying appear in three different tracks, the most harrowing in the up-tempo “Caught in the Middle,” where Williams opens with “I can’t think of getting old / It only makes me want to die.” In some serious irony, the band no longer makes pop-punk music but still engages with some of the lyrical themes that trivialized the genre — but with a distinguishing maturity. Williams’ anxiety comes from an introspective place — she no longer blames outside forces for her unhappiness.
After Laughter builds on the foundation of “Ain’t It Fun” into new pop territories. Singles “Hard Times” and “Told You So” pull from Talking Heads worship, “Forgiveness” is the band’s take on Haim’s chiming California soft-rock revival, “Rose Colored Boy” grabs a synth line from a contemporized ’80s sound, in line with something Sky Ferreira or Carly Rae Jepsen might chose to explore. Unlike the self-titled record, there are no real pop-punk moments on After Laughter — the chorus of “Grudges” is perhaps the most similar, a brilliant move considering the song’s meaning. It’s a sweet reflection of Williams’ repaired relationship with both Farro brothers — Zac even harmonizes on the track.
“Idle Worship” begins with a haunting, Ariel Pink-adjacent distant synth recorded beneath the mix, looped to give a sampling effect — your ear is drawn to Williams’ contorted vocals. At the end of each verse, she speeds into a gravelly croak: “You’re not the one who’s hopeless,” and “There’s not a single person here’s who’s worthy.” She’s breaking the fourth wall to demand we not place our faith upon her while sounding nothing like herself. It’s the perfect way to open the album’s final chapter, where Paramore reveals a real comfort in experimentation. ‘No Friend’ is a post-hardcore-style interlude with spoken word vocals courtesy of Aaron Weiss of emo rockers Mewithoutyou. Weiss’s words are nearly indiscernible, but a lyric sheet reveals references to past Paramore singles, bent out of shape. It cleanses, leaving room for the album closer, “Tell Me How,” a soft R&B exploration disguised as a piano ballad. It’s easy to imagine someone like Drake or The Weeknd trying their hand at it.
After Laughter is a record of unraveling, one that watched the fabric fall and managed to create something new from the old — in the current Paramore lineup, in guitarist Taylor York’s penchant for ’80s pop experimentation, in Williams’ vulnerable lyricism performed in a voice outside her own, in Farro’s familiarity, in their fight for compassionate reinvention. It’s a record created close to death, it’s a record that exists both in loss and the stage right after it. It’s a miserable pop record, a complicated pop record, Paramore’s first pop record. Here’s hoping for many more.