Last week, the website of US radio network NPR ran a lengthy piece about what it called the Grunge Gold Rush: the early 90s moment when record labels became obsessed with finding the next Nirvana and threw money at a plethora of unsuitable alternative guitar bands. It’s a fascinating story, replete with much hand-wringing anguish from bands who found their punk ideals hopelessly compromised by the machinations of the mainstream pop world and feared their fanbase would dwindle, rather than increase, with every glitzy photoshoot and visit to an expensive recording studio. It makes for an intriguing how-times-change contrast with the career of Paramore, who began life as an angsty emo-punk band from Tennessee beloved of Kerrang! magazine. For their most recent album, 2017’s After Laughter, they were transformed into a glossy electronic pop machine, apparently without shedding any of their original following: among a crowd so devoted that an appreciative roar of recognition arrives within milliseconds of every song starting, there is still a lot of dyed black hair and eye makeup that looks as if it was applied by someone wearing oven gloves.
The person who seems most concerned about the shift in the band’s sound is frontwoman Hayley Williams, but not in the way you might expect. The set is heavy on songs from After Laughter – they play virtually the whole album – and before they perform their 2007 hit Misery Business, Williams launches into a lengthy preamble that somehow makes it sound as if she’s faintly embarrassed by it: “Let’s celebrate that we’ve all done a lot of growing up since then.”
But watching them on stage, you find yourself wondering how much Paramore have really changed. The shifts between old material and new never seem disjointed, because they were clearly always a pop band at heart. Even in their early days, waspish critics were given to comparing their oeuvre to that of American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson, but what their old stuff really recalls is slick, hook-heavy, early-80s US new wave. You don’t have to squint too hard to imagine That’s What You Get or Still Into You in heavy rotation on the nascent MTV, performed by a band with skinny ties and mop-top haircuts. And what their latterday material recalls is slick, hook-heavy, early-80s US new wave with the synthesisers turned up: the same band on MTV a few years on, the suits noticeably baggier, the hair flecked with highlights and looking a little mullet-y.
If anything, the show feels slightly monotonal, Hate to See Your Heart Break’s excursion into lighters-aloft balladry notwithstanding. It’s a state of affairs not much helped by the understated production, which offers none of the usual attention-grabbing whizz-bang thrills of an arena pop gig, nor by the anonymity of everyone in Paramore who isn’t Hayley Williams. Her bandmates melt into the lineup of ancillary musicians hired to bolster the live sound. You hesitate to say it, given the amount of intra-band strife that has attended Paramore over the years, but it might as well be a show by a solo artist.
Still, Williams is a pretty magnetic performer: high-kicking, dropping to her knees, bringing an audience member on stage to sing with her. If some of her earnest between-song monologues go on a bit, well, earnestness is clearly what the audience are here for: they bellow back the lyrics about despondency and emotional strife with the fervour of people whose lives have been genuinely touched by them, and Paramore’s lasting appeal becomes self-evident.