It’s difficult to believe it has been three years since Purity Ring debuted their first album. Although it feels as if both more and less time has passed, fans of the Canadian electro-pop duo are not new to waiting. Megan James and Corin Roddick, the pair behind Purity Ring, first arrived on the scene with “Ungirthed” in early 2011 and then set a lingered pace for subsequent singles until the summer of 2012, when the highly-anticipated Shrines finally dropped. Since then James and Roddick have collaborated with artists from Jon Hopkins to Danny Brown, and took time to figure where their sound had been and where it was going before they tackled their sophomore album, Another Eternity.
The record opens up with “Heartsigh”, a playful nod to the portmanteau song titles that made up most of Shrines. A hopeful keyboard melody and lush, cosmic synths build up to accelerated drums just before James’ girlish vocals break through, “I’ll whisk away your heartsigh and bury it in mine.” The track feels familiar and yet there is a lightness that didn’t exist in Purity Ring’s debut record. In fact, their first album fell in a genre I had previously dubbed "Gollum Rock." With each listen, I couldn't help but think of dark, underground dwellings with shadowy, glistening pools of water among stalactites and stalagmites. I imagined that Smeagol had become a hipster, paired up with the Wicked Witch of the West's estranged daughter and wrote songs in between biting off the heads of dinosaur-looking fish. But from the onset of Another Eternity, I could tell whatever creatures I thought existed behind Shrines,they had abandoned their Middle Earth caverns for a more lightened atmosphere.
The album continues with “Bodyache”, the second and last track on the record to mash two words into one title. The track begins with juicy, sonic water drops, then moves into lyrics like “I wanna stare at the tears, how they watered your years.” When the chorus hits, the despondent words give way to the hyper poppy treatment of James’ vocals as she stutters “I-I-I-I cried until my body ached.” It’s with these first few songs on the record that Purity Ring acknowledges the quirks which made them stand out four years ago, while still pushing the audience’s ear toward a new sound they have decided to call “future pop.” It is also in this track that the duo first highlights the interesting dichotomy that exists throughout Another Eternity. Lyrically, James shows frustration with her human vessel while Riddick’s dubsteppy synths and big beat drops are straight out da club. The juxtaposition of such introspective lyrics backed by the kind of danceable beats that keep Molly fans bumpin’ til dawn is eccentric, but intriguing. Purity Ring’s duality is what made them so interesting to begin with, but as Roddick pushes the envelope to leave the overdone dream pop sound behind, this contrast grows all the more apparent.
Another Eternity's first single “Push Pull” is up next. James explores the hesitation that can sometimes come with a new relationship in which one person feels as though the other has crept into their heart unexpectedly, “you push and you pull, but you'd never know, I crept up in you and I wouldn't let go.” Following is the low-tempo “Repetition” which starts with sparse drums and a steady beat. Megan’s vocals are sexy as she indulges herself, breathing life into her lover’s limbs, moving across each body part as she sings of rattling spines, shoulders, and skin. She is confident in the chorus “watching me is like watching the fire take your eyes from you.” At first, it may seem frightening to visualize the scenarios her words shape, but James’ fixation with a corporeal existence seems more rooted in the Bhagavad Gita than a simple morbid fascination. Her ability to split open sternums, and set pupils ablaze shows what little concern she has for the ephemeral existence that is humanity. Our bodies are fragile, but temporary. Megan enjoys playing on these themes and perhaps even embraces Buddhism-inspired ideas which separate the life force within us from the machinery of our bodies. Musically, the track features the heaviest use of autotune we have heard so far and shortly after three minutes in, the severe effects on bits of the chorus take the song to top 40 status.
The radio-ready vibe continues into “Stranger Than Earth.” Immediately it feels more at home on a new Ariana Grande record, as Roddick booms in with powerful bass, and a disembodied “eh” repeating behind sugary sweet vocals from James. There is a collaboration at work in this album that was missing in Shrines. Roddick’s appreciation for hip-hop and mainstream pop has spilled over into James’ vocal style, pushing her into pure pop star mode. It can be heard in the way she forgets the “g” in “feeling” and the “a” in “about” when she sings “I wasn’t thinkin’ ‘bout you.” She embraces the heavy production and goes for it completely. The track continues with ascending pulses and quick drums that build up to a dynamic bridge exploding with vocal effects. This dip into each others’ worlds is the result unique to an in-person collaboration and helps the band foster the evolved sound they’re after.
Moving into “Begin Again”, the standout track on the album and where the title of the record was pulled. Themes of reincarnation move back into focus as James sings of different worlds, alternate eternities and the world ending in a fiery burst. The lyrics make comparisons between body and nature, drawing parallels between their temporal existence. “You be the moon, I'll be the earth and when we burst, start over, o darling, begin again.” With her lyrics James laments for a love that simply can not exist in this world, but could be possible in some another eternity. Two souls that reunite and start over, free from the shackles of skin and bone while orbiting in the void of some other universe.
"Begin Again” is the last track on the album where the production fails to get in the way of the beautiful sentiments James conveys. Although the direction of the lyrics stay the same, the mood of the album tips towards Roddick’s style. We move through “Dust Hymn” which feels like a forgettable few minutes in a DJ set and into the poppiest track on the album, “Flood on the Floor.” Visions of being buried, drowning and ashes are eclipsed by dreamy bells, reverse reverb and wobbly synths. The duo works to balance each other, Roddick pulling James from her murky depths, saving her from herself by adding levity in the form of a perfectly timed beat drop. The album concludes with a couple more poppy tracks that are less concerned with exploring an eerie knife-filled shed, but instead distract the listener with a lot of glitch effects, shaking bass, and vibrato.
Megan and Roddick come together on several tracks to achieve a perfect balance between thoughtful lyrics and a dynamic soundscape. Yet there are moments on the album when the two get in the way of each other, leaving listeners to decide which half of the duo they’re more drawn to. Purity Ring devotees will come back for lyrical substance, being drawn to songs like “Begin Again” and “Push Pull.” New fans will be seduced by “Stranger than Earth” and “Flood on the Floor” featuring the slick programming more often heard in trending pop charts. If James’ words serve as the soul of the record, then Roddick’s production is the body, a highly complex machine contending to move the two forward. This push and pull is intriguing at first, but halfway through it becomes clear Purity Ring has failed to achieve a perfect unity between the material and spiritual aspects they represent. It’s a miss that is difficult to hold against them completely, that kind of harmony is something that eludes even the best of us. Even so, there are glimmers of pure magic on the record where it seemed almost possible…perhaps in Another Eternity.
Another Eternity is out March 3 on 4AD records. Head over to the 4AD store to purchase.
Read more album reviews over at Bearded Gentlemen Music.
Purity Ring is on tour now. See below for dates.