Album Review: PVRIS – Use Me

[Warner/Reprise; 2020]

Her second album was called All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell, and Lynn Gunn went through both extremes in the years following its release in 2017. Since then, she’s damaged (and mostly repaired) her voice, dealt with worsening stage fright and been diagnosed with two different autoimmune diseases; namely, Crohn’s and AS (Ankylosing Spondylitis). In amongst all this is her decision to take up the mantle of the PVRIS name for herself. In the live arena, the Massachusetts-formed project is now a duo, with Gunn, now based in LA, flanked by Brian MacDonald on bass and keyboards; but as a recording project, it’s very much hers to claim. She refrained from doing so until now, but is ready to step into the spotlight as the project’s sole architect on Use Me, her most personal album yet.

This time around, Gunn has steered PVRIS toward a more bombastic sound, readily assisted by co-producer JT Daly of Nashville trio Paper Route. He worked with Gunn for last year’s Hallucinations EP – their debut for Reprise – and the collaboration proved fruitful enough that they are, well, reprising it for a full-length project, as she steps into the spotlight in a remarkably confident manner – and given Use Me’s autobiographical lyrical content, even more so.

“Hold it together through the weather, it’s my DNA” she proclaims on lead single “Dead Weight”, the song’s pulsing, pounding rhythm and electronic flourishes buoyed by its lyrical perspective – Gunn no longer wants to be a people-pleaser and is putting herself first in a forthright fashion, as the song pinpoints one of the record’s key narrative themes: the establishment and recognition of self-worth.

It’s something that’s explored in different ways at different times throughout Use Me. On “Old Wounds” (one of three songs from Hallucinations included here, placed back-to-back in the tracklisting and all benefitting from additional album context) Gunn ponders going back to a previous romantic relationship that didn’t offer closure. “I think I could love you til the day that you die / If you let me love you when the timing is right,” she sings, willing to risk that sense of self-worth for another shot. “Good to Be Alive”, meanwhile, directly references Gunn’s health issues (“I’ve been staying up all night / Shaking needles out my spine / But the doctor says I’m fine”) and encapsulates how self-worth can be strained by events seemingly outside of one’s control, but its outlook is positive in spite of its anguished subject matter.

For all its emphasis on self-empowerment, Use Me also acknowledges that while Gunn has indeed triumphed over her struggles, it’s not an open-and-shut case. Powerful opener “Gimme a Minute” builds from a skeletal verse into a surging chorus, swept along by sub-bass throbs and her urgent vocal delivery as she starts the album by taking stock of everything that’s happened to her (“A year of lows, spent so high / Feeling like I could die”) and simply needing the space to get herself together (“Thought it was over, maybe it isn’t / Just gimme a minute”). The album’s title track flips that narrative and once again casts Gunn as the one in charge; able to provide and offering herself up to that end – emotional connection as medicine. “Use Me” is also notable for being the first PVRIS song to credit a featured artist with a guest appearance from New Jerseyan Danielle Balbuena, AKA 070 Shake; she’s an ideal fit for the woozy, atmospheric song, and raises the question of future collaborations on Gunn’s records.

Use Me is a stirring artistic statement from someone who should no longer feel as though she has to hide. By turns forceful (the EDM-flecked behemoth “Death of Me”) and tender (the gorgeous acoustic track “Loveless”) and marked throughout by stark lyricism and overt vulnerability, Use Me positions Gunn as damn near unstoppable as she takes the fight to afflictions both physical and mental. Her third album leaves no stone unturned, turning darkness into sheer catharsis. Sounds like something we all could use.