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Photo: Carson Davis Brown / Courtesy of 4AD Records

‘WOMB’ Reclaims Purity Ring’s Distinctive Electropop

Although Purity Ring's WOMB never stops sounding good, the bops came easier in 2012. WOMB is an effortful return to form for the electropop duo.

WOMB
Purity Ring
4AD
3 April 2020

2012 was the perfect year to hear Purity Ring for the first time. It’s not like there was a shortage of late-era electropop coming out, but the oversaturation of hyper-charged synth jams didn’t change the fact that nobody sounded quite like them.

Of their many peers, Purity Ring were easily the most polished. Take Grimes, a fellow Canadian who spent the year delivering insomnia-fueled bedroom jams that practically screamed lo-fi, or glitzy Swedes like Niki & the Dove or iamamiwhoami, who balanced glittery synths with carnal vocals. By contrast, every Purity Ring song sounded expensive and pure. The formula was simple: shrill bursts of saturated synth hoisted up vocals that somehow felt even more synthetic. If you were lucky, a pitched-down vocal sample would waltz with the main melody or get sliced and diced into a jittery hook.

You wouldn’t find much else on a Purity Ring song, but the rate at which the formula churned out bangers was impossible to ignore. Because of this, their 2012 debut Shrines lives on as one of synthpop‘s last great hurrahs. Purity Ring had mastered their craft and pushed it to its hi-fi zenith. It’s almost like there was no room to grow. Their early success gave them two options. They could try to double down on their shtick, making each album another angle of the same painting, or they could go the more ambitious route, pushing their natural infectiousness into an even bigger space.

Another Eternity (2015) saw them commit to the latter. Big-room EDM posturing replaced the spacious, punchy instrumentals with more fat and less focus. That was the type of album you’d make in anticipation of an arena tour, and while Purity Ring were still too indie to get their own, they did snag a run alongside Carly Rae Jepsen opening for Katy Perry in 2017. It made sense. A group whose live show was centered around hitting a light-up tree with a stick had every reason to maximize exposure. If they didn’t try to be the norm, they would never know how underwhelming it felt.

Released five years later, WOMB almost pretends like Another Eternity never happened. While not quite as minimalist as Shrines, its mood is far closer to the unsettling wooziness they introduced themselves with than the frustrating anonymity of their follow-up. If I had to guess, I would assume Purity Ring secretly understand that they went from the gatekeepers of an inimitable sound to borderline imitators. On the surface, the most exciting thing about WOMB is that it reclaims Purity Ring’s distinctiveness, a deferred expansion of a sound they once stepped away from.

WOMB almost feels like Purity Ring reopening the time capsule they left in 2012 and reacquainting themselves with the contents. A lot of familiar elements fuel the momentum, and they sound as immaculate today as they did in 2012. For example, Shrines had an almost comical affinity for synth stabs that would go from 0 to 100 in less than a second before disappearing completely. That signature move is all over this record. The timeless nature of their sound keeps WOMB from sounding like a throwback, although Purity Ring would be better off banking on nostalgia than riding the coattails of trends.

That’s not to say that WOMB fails to tread new ground. The goal of WOMB is clearly not to recreate the concise, minimal thrills of Shrines. Instead, WOMB is looser and less immediate. Hooks have always been Purity Ring’s forte, and even if they don’t come on as strong here, they are as hypnotic as ever. Album opener “rubyinsides” is a full-on ballad with a melody that might sound a bit familiar if it were accompanied by piano and strings. Instead, the backdrop is a blend of clattering handclaps and atonal blips that spend most of the song veering in and out of focus.

The much darker “peacefall” is easy on the ears at first, feeling nearly nondescript until its chorus worms its way into your head. “i like the devil” pulls a similar trick, with one of the most dynamic contrasts between verse and chorus of the group’s career. Opening with a steady thump, the spotlight shifts to Megan James’ voice as she croons over nothing but piano. They dodge redundancy by developing new impulses, and it works.

The real keepers on WOMB make it abundantly clear that Purity Ring have been taking their time. More than ever before, these tracks morph and breed, waiting for the perfect moments to unleash some of the most ear-catching sounds. You can constantly hear the labor that goes into the production, with textures and contrasts that probably took years to tweak. Every single melody on “sinew” could be a hook, but the song is tied together by a backdrop that unwinds in accordance with James’ vocals. When she belts, the dizzying synths prop her up. When she re-centers, the beat stops to catch its breath with her, maxing out on explosiveness once it finally picks a chorus.

However, it’s like the entire album is building up to the perfect climax. “stardew” is a gargantuan track that justifies all the festival-baiting that once bogged them down. Megan James delivers the vocal performance of a lifetime, leading seamlessly into a synthline that sounds like it’s being broadcast from the moon. It’s the type of hook that you would find on an old Swedish House Mafia or Avicii song, one that seems designed to be the last thing you hear at a festival before going home to wash off the restlessness and euphoria. Yet, instead of milking it with a drop, they let it soak into the rest of the song, a trick that underlines the chemistry between each sound.

It’s not like every song on WOMB chases these highs, but the most mature and exciting ones do. When they try to make a beatless song with “almanac”, it feels almost slapdash, and tracks that aren’t driven by a big idea, like “femia” and “silkspun”, struggle to soak in. Even the lyrics, which once painted unforgettable images of wild buffalo dancing in the sky and sliced open sternums, feel trite at their most memorable.

Although WOMB never stops sounding good, the bops came easier in 2012. The best thing you can say about WOMB is that it’s an effortful return to form, an album where most tracks slowly but surely prove their worth. The worst is a criticism typical of artists who fall slightly short of their old spark; as soon as this album ends, I instantly reach for the classics.

RATING 7 / 10
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