By Russell Warfield
The really clever thing about the name Purity Ring is that it’s so easy not to click with its irony for quite some time. Everything on Shrines is so slick and clean, and Megan James’ vocals so glisteningly modest, that it’s easy to let the album wash over you – despite its filthy electronic glitches insistently throbbing underneath the grace – as the naturally clinical output of a band with a name so white. That’s until you start listening properly, and you notice James’ downright obsession with the bodily. The woman can’t get through a track without mentioning something which should typically be concealed by skin. The chorus of song of the year contender ‘Fineshrine’ couldn’t sound more nonchalant, even as it describes romantic mutilation. Piles of bones, teeth clicking, holes in eyelids… And once you’ve noticed this, the delicious tensions between the amalgamation of electronic trends and absolutely soaring pop choruses become all the more alluring.
One of the greatest strengths of Shrines is its three-way juxtaposition between Roddick’s instrumentals, James’ vocals, and James’ lyrics – each going against each other’s grains throughout, yet somehow cohering into an espionage of total togetherness. The hooks on songs like ‘Belispeak’ are a mile wide, and James’ vocal lullaby sweet, but the lyrics are frequently eerie – combining a horrendous physical violence (“drill little holes into my eyelids…”) with a dark psychological bent (“… that I might see you when I sleep”) in the most economical manner possible.
Roddick, to his credit, succeeds in playing to both ends simultaneously – his pulsating backdrops bringing rhythm in and out of the mix to meet the hooks without making a fuss, but also adding gravity and atmosphere to James’ sentiments. The fact that neither the direct pop sensibilities nor the dark, cloying atmospherics overtly distract from each other is the heart (the disgustingly literal, pulsating organ) of this album’s success.
And while the record generally operates within these fairly narrow aural parameters, that’s not to say that Shrines doesn’t make the odd leap of faith. ‘Grandloves’ sees James – largely successfully – duet with a Young Magic sample, while ‘Cartographist’ sees Roddick really try his hand at some menacing sub-bass of dubstep origin. And throughout, Purity Ring never really feel like they’ve overplayed their hand, or outplayed their sound. It’s a truly engrossing aural identity, with a great attention to detail from both members of its duo – sharply drawn melodies with seductively incongruous lyricism, coupled with a nuance of instrumental texture which plays like a ‘here’s what’s happening now’ of current electronic music.
It’s a record littered with almost as many highlights as choruses, and more than fulfils the promise of ‘Ungirthed’ when it first set the blogs alight eighteen months ago. Perhaps most surprisingly, it manages to do so without offering too much in the way of new surprises – James’ hook betrayed her corporeal fixation and fierce melodic instinct; Roddick delivered the beats and the stabbing textures. Instead, Shrines delivers not by subverting the sound, but simply by offering up more of the glorious fluid in equal or greater strength.