There’s nothing more perilous for a band on the rise than the dreaded sophomore slump. You’ve had a successful debut and are now expected to replicate that success. That pressure can either be debilitating, or liberating. PVRIS (pronounced “Paris”) came into the alternative spotlight in 2014 with White Noise – a lush, atmospheric fusion of electro-pop rock (think Evanescence’s gothic style, with Paramore’s catchy hooks). Their second effort, All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell, refines their rough edges and explores a deeper, far more cutting emotional terrain. If White Noise hinted at the band’s scars, All We Know is them peeling away the bandages and revealing their wounded souls.
The most impressive thing about the album is how confident PVRIS sounds from the get-go. “Heaven,” the album’s lead single, feels like a continuation and a venture towards the operatic. “You took my Heaven away,” frontwoman Lynn Gunn bellows amidst a thunderous symphony of sound. It’s gloomy, but confidently so. The opening track could also double as an introduction for newcomers, showcasing the soulful guitar lines and ethereal synths of the band’s musical vocabulary.
“Anyone Else” displays the sheer power of Gunn’s vocal range, veering from a melancholy sigh to a roar into the abyss. The track, driven by a solemn heartbeat, chronicles the reluctance to love again, that fear intermingled with desire, and its surrender. It could’ve been so easy for the band to ride on the success of “St. Patrick,” their very first single which catapulted them into the stratosphere (no surprise; the song is catchy as hell). Instead, they double down on the darker, edgier sound that pervaded the second half of White Noise.
“Half” and “What’s Wrong” carry the black-flamed baton in that regard, while retaining the kind of hook made for the alternative airwaves. Both songs serve as visceral reactions to the bruising, punishing 3-year tour they embarked on following their debut (“when did I get so pitiful/just a goddamn corpse in a centerfold”). Success, of course, has its tradeoffs.
Things changed quite a bit for the band at the end of their world tour (which Gunn candidly spoke about). Exhaustion, a prolonged creative drought, and, for Lynn, the end of a relationship; homecoming wasn’t nearly as momentous an occasion (jarring, especially when everyone is raving about your success). This surreality proved sobering. It also put everything into perspective – a zeroing in on the personal and deep-seated issues that would become the thematic foundation of their next effort. Weeks later, they set up shop in a supposedly haunted church and went back to work.
White Noise may have been all about ghosts, but All We Know feels even more haunted, Lynn’s songwriting languishing in that existential dread between anger and despair. “Love’s like watching someone die,” Gunn sings in “Walk Alone” (continuing, “I was the smoke in your lungs/tearing you apart”). PVRIS ditches the clever metaphors for literal sentiments backed by stark imagery. “Same Soul” is openly mournful, a song about a lover aching to find her true love again and again in different people, losing herself along the way. Gunn reasserts the imagery of rising and falling throughout. All We Know is about that inevitability – the duality of Heaven and Hell, of joy and pain, love and heartbreak.
Fire is a recurring motif in Gunn’s lyricism, encapsulating the allure and destruction of its all-consuming rage. Mentions of blood are also scattered across the album and its representation of guilt. “Winter” feels like an immediate response following a love gone up in flames with a fiery chorus to spare. “No Mercy,” a sequel of sorts to previous album closer “Let Them In,” stands as an unflinching invitation to inflict maximum pain on Gunn’s fragile core (“there’s blood in the water/but it tastes so sweet”).
“Separate” is their most effective track, Gunn’s powerhouse vocals accompanied by a drumbeat aching towards heartbreak. It retains all the narrative gloom charted thus far yet somehow emerges hopeful and romantic in its sentiment (it is also this writer’s favorite track). “Nola 1” serves as a quiet closer, Gunn’s lone melody echoing the perpetual loneliness that heartbreak so often brings.
All We Know is a portrait of anguish and a searing one at that. For Gunn, it’s also a reflection. Lynn places equal blame on herself as she does on the unnamed specter responsible for so much of her torment (love, of course, is a two-way street). But, as the band has proven with these ten soul-bearing tracks, there is power in confessing your sins, and catharsis in exorcising your demons. Theirs, in particular, are truly breathtaking. If White Noise made PVRIS a band to simply “watch out for,” then All We Know is evident of a newfound obsession, or rather, religion. Consider me a follower. I’d happily wander in this haunting cathedral of theirs for a spell.