We’ve come a long way from PVRIS being the most exciting new band alternative music had to offer. That was a titled bestowed to them in the run-up to their debut White Noise, which does, in fact, still easily hold up as their best effort to date in a moody, occasionally gothic take on electronic pop-rock. But as PVRIS have rarely hesitated to prove, it can be a dangerous business to have a debut as a band’s albatross release, especially when the diminishing returns don’t seem to be slowing down. An inconsistent live showing is one thing, but their sophomore effort All We Know Of Heaven, All We Need Of Hell was a significant step down from its predecessor that painted PVRIS as something of a one-trick pony, and one that could even struggle to replicate that one trick across their own albums. And yet, PVRIS have stuck around, be that through residual good will that’s withstood from White Noise or for the fact that Lynn Gunn is a genuine force to be reckoned with as a frontwoman, but the band on the whole feel like a shell of their former selves. The marketing for this very album says plenty of that itself, with the rest of the band seemingly sidelined entirely to place the spotlight exclusively on Gunn, reportedly to highlight her own acceptance as the prime creative force within the band, but also the sort of decision that’s been seen before and hasn’t typically yielded positive results. It’s old hat to make any sort of comparisons to Paramore, but the media obsession with elevating Hayley Williams above anyone else has seen some regularly fractious in-band relationships form, the repercussions of which can still be felt in their music today. Add onto that the fact that PVRIS have resorted to recycling songs from their okay-ish EP Hallucinations from last year on here, and Use Me really begins to display some worrying signs; PVRIS already passed through their last hype cycle battered and bruised, but to see them carry on in what appears to be the same state isn’t pleasant to see.
And in the wake of all of that, Use Me comes out with probably the least ideal result for PVRIS to have – it’s just fine. For all the crushing discourses, delays and now allegations against and subsequent departure of guitarist Alex Babinski, everything was suggesting that Use Me would either be a crashing failure or a phoenixian rise back to greatness; at least either of those extremes would be justifiable for everything that this album has had go on around it. Instead, Use Me doesn’t elicit much of any sort of response at all, perhaps slightly sway more to the positive considering it is possible to see Gunn’s endeavours when it comes to reinventing what PVRIS is all about for this new phase. Still, that isn’t much to go on, making for a lateral move at best and one that still has the spark of their debut in view but once again fails to really grab it.
Even saying that though, said spark feels like a lot less of a factor on Use Me than it was on White Noise, really only coming into play for the dreamier, billowing atmosphere that always at least rests in the background. PVRIS are clearly chasing their pop sound more doggedly and leaving the already slight rock edge they had behind, and while that isn’t necessarily a problem when it comes to channelling these songs into sharper, sleeker works, there’s also less power to them. The terse synths on Gimme A Minute and Stay Gold might cast glances back towards the rough, icier foundations that All We Know Of Heaven… pretty much circumvented altogether, but they’re also blockier in a way that tries to replicate a rock edge but doesn’t get all the way. The closest that PVRIS actually get to that is Dead Weight, with a driving pace and Gunn’s barbed shrieks that shed some of the calculation that might otherwise be present, and actually hit a stride similar to what they were once capable of. Use Me actually threatens to do that on quite a few occasions, like with peak-and-trough dynamics of Hallucinations and steamy bass slither of Wish You Well, but there’s a reticence to actually going that extra mile that holds it back. As much as PVRIS have been regularly welcomed by the alt-pop set, they never used to be as bound by its limitations, but from their last album and now here, they’ve really struggled to move away from that, and when the likes of Loveless or the title track sink back into the monochrome, cushioned production style that’s regularly proven so drained and fruitless for them (as well as the latter featuring a guest appearance from 070 Shake that couldn’t fit less if it tried), it’s difficult to parse out a recognisable course that PVRIS are actually heading on, or plan to do anything noteworthy on.
It’s worth noting, too, that this is all still listenable, and the sudden thrusting of Gunn as the sole face of the band hasn’t yielded any fundamental changes, but it would be preferable if it did. The pop direction is something but it’s not exactly breaking ground, and while Dead Weight or Death Of Me – or even the title track, to an extent – feel indicative of the wheels touching ground to begin a new pivot, it’s the earliest stage at best and there’s still a very rote, weakened form of the PVRIS sound to contend with otherwise. It’s not exactly resting on its laurels because the intent is there, but it’s nothing close to the power or confidence that should exude from it, even for as much as Gunn clearly wants to give that impression. There’s definitely a frustration towards her own mind for holding her back for so long on Gimme A Minute and Dead Weight, but it’s not as key a focal point as it could be, and when Use Me once again has Gunn circle back to relationship issues or more general mental discord (only this time with far more broadness in the lyrical choices), again, it doesn’t feel like all that much of a progression.
Once more though, it does need to be stressed that it’s not entirely bad, but there’s also the distinct feeling that PVRIS are punching below their weight, and the newfound confidence and restructuring that’s apparently gone into this album doesn’t show up as much as it could. It makes for a pretty threadbare listen, all things considered, buoyed by good intentions and a willingness to keep the idea of advancement in mind, all without really putting it to good use or doing much with it that’s particularly meaningful. But that’s really just indicative of what PVRIS have been doing for a while now; they’ve tried to recreate the greatness of their debut but have never succeeded, and the fact they’ve landed on yet another album where the results are more or less the same shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Still, even then, everything that has surrounded Use Me still makes that feel like a disappointment, as though the only thing that could be yielded from a period of turbulence, drama and significant inter-band restructuring is just more of the same.
For fans of: Chapel, Halflives, Against The Current
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Use Me’ by PVRIS is out now on Warner Records.