If we dispense with electro-pop futurism—you know, the grand suggestion that the contemporary dance music genres ought to all merge and vaguely transcend—we might instead just uplift (and, ahem, buy) the best shit, discard whatever falters, and happily split that difference. We might enjoy music "on its own terms," as they say. If you prefer your pop music clear-eyed and uncluttered—in contrast with the high-octane culture-mashing of Girl Talk or Future Brown—here you have Purity Ring, a haunting pop singularity that's hardly out to remake the world or reinvent genres, even as the genres warp and bend around them.
Less chirpy and bleating than much of their 2012 debut, Shrines, this latest album is also less daring, insomuch as it is less rare. Since 2012, pop music has gradually remade itself in Purity Ring's sonic mold, and Corin Roddick's production is no longer so innovative or novel in the grand scheme. Here we find rich bass lines and licks of trap that we'd expect, with more than half of these beats sounding like they'd have thrived all the same on a Makonnen EP. Listen closely, and you'll hear the punchy, syncopated "dust hymn" begging for a "Holiday season!" drop, I swear. As an indie precedent for much of pop and hip-hop's recent sensibilities, Purity Ring is working the crux of Western dance music's many contemporary iterations.
Purity Ring's production is less exciting this time around, and so Megan James' songwriting is this project's constitution. Her vocals are cybernetic as ever, with the rhythm and tenor of an enslaved A.I., as on "sea castle," where she sings, "I could build a big machine/Draw pictures for the walls/Hang up all my fragile thoughts." Never lifeless but occasionally constrained, her voice, perhaps tired of chanting, chooses to cast spells instead. As ever, James is a gifted narrator; her way with corporeal imagery is unmatched, her atomic perception of skin and movement are precise wizardry. By the power of lullaby, James could select and soothe a single goosebump. If all albums can (in some sense) be said to exist in a universe of the musician(s)'s definition, James' world is skin and sand; an album of ankles, navels, and pale breastplates. (It's all the talk of feet and castles.) On "repetition," body language is sacred ritual: "I will watch your lips curved in a smooth combat/Make your way through my tears and I'll relax."
As for the album's own anatomy: another eternity is a dense and tightly crafted zone, with Roddick's kick drum volleys and emergency synth surges sometimes sounding as if they're firing upon James' voice, which isn't big or bold to begin with. "sea castle," a standout nonetheless, is the foremost example of James and Roddick dueling for oxygen and prominence in the mix. Wordy as a few of these verses may be, James' inflections are impressively dreary, even when her voice is slathered in bass line and other pulses. In her attacks on various emotional blockages and romantic impasses, James whips up images of tender flesh, and Roddick propels her forward with his splashes of jet fuel. This simple, signature chemistry makes for a relatively conservative follow-up to a debut album that, three years ago, had many fans and critics re-imagining pop music as inexhaustibly brave and new. A song needn't shove six different tectonic faults at once to be taking a crack at innovation, however. Scientists are still mapping the human genome, and here Purity Ring is doing more than its fair share of the figurative work.
Justin Charity is a staff writer at Complex. Follow him @brothernumpsa.