Purity Ring - Shrines (2012)
Until very recently, Purity Ring were just another buzz band to me. Their first few singles flew by in a flurry of hype with little lasting impact, and even when I saw them play at the Pitchfork Music Festival in July, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d been down a similar road before with countless other bands. And yet, after I compulsively downloaded their debut full length Shrines, released last month on 4AD, I found myself unable to stop listening to it. As I have since found, there is a lot more substance and depth to this album than it might initially suggest.
The concept of purity is a complicated one, and one that has undoubtedly been tainted by centuries of archaic moral standards and practices. If you can ignore all of that, the essence of purity is still a rather beautiful idea; it evokes childlike notions of innocence and clarity that procure a strong feeling of nostalgia from anybody who has experiences the transition from child to adult. It’s culturally understood that every individual must make such a transition at some point in life, and many adults find themselves yearning for that purity of innocence soon afterwards. On Shrines, the aptly named Canadian duo Purity Ring — which comprises two precocious 20-somethings — explores their newly nostalgic adult relationship with innocence, and, perhaps more importantly, they make some pretty damn good pop music while doing it.
The first thing you’ll notice upon listening to Shrines may be the spacey, cacophonous beats or the sweet-sounding vocals — both staples of the 2012 future-pop sound. Musically, this album certainly shines and glistens as much as anything else released this year. Bright, clear production gives Shrines a sweeping gloss, punctuated by dense hip-hop influenced beats and Megan James’ shockingly pretty vocals. Experimental producer Balam Acab seems to be a big touchstone for a lot of the instrumentation, particularly on tracks like “Amenamy” and “Grandloves,” which features a rare vocal performance from Purity Ring’s resident beatmaker Corin Roddick. Nods to post-dubstep producers like James Blake and Burial pop up occasionally as well, most notably when Roddick experiments with vocal manipulation on songs like “Loftcries” and the two-stepping “Saltkin.” It’s a glossy and pretty record that glimmers with sonic sophistication.
That said, what strikes me about this album most when compared to records made by Purity Ring’s immediate peers is how much the lyrics come through. Unlike, for example, Grimes, who manipulates her impish vocals to the point of incomprehensibility, singer Megan James’ vocals are treated with relative sanctity on Shrines. Although her high, reedy voice is occasionally chopped up and transmogrified into the beats, her lead vocals remain effectively pure throughout these eleven songs. Consequently, James’ lyrics stand out, especially thanks to how catchy most of the melodies are. As a lyricist, James’ style is kind of hard to pinpoint, but her penchant for dark imagery and blurred vagueness verges on confessional at points. Certain key phrases and lines tend to stand out amongst the stuttering electronics and earworm hooks on tracks like the creepy opener “Crawlersout” and “Ungirthed,” implanting a sense of darkness into the otherwise almost sickeningly sweet musical mix. “Belispeak,” one of the highlight tracks on Shrines, has such a hummable melody that you won’t even necessarily realize that it describes a life-threatening sickness and potentially an abortion. Meanwhile, the definitive album standout “Fineshrine,” one of the absolute best pop songs I’ve heard all year, bears some disturbingly symbolic sexualized lyrics in its undeniably great chorus hook. There is something that feels enticingly dangerous about hearing dark, eerie lyrics paired with such welcoming melodies, and that contrast speaks to what makes Purity Ring such an interesting project.
Listening to this record gives me the same rush that I used to feel as a child, telling a white lie or stealing something from my parents. It’s a fleeting high, and one that ultimately leads to regret, but making those mistakes and losing that purity is essential to the transition into adulthood. As both nighttime brooding music and party playlist fodder, Shrines provides a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking soundtrack to that inevitable loss of innocence.