There’s a key line during “Bellspeak,” one of several such lines on Purity Ring’s debut album, Shrines, during which Megan James sings “Drill little holes into my eyelids that I might see you every sleep.” It is as clear a summation imaginable of an album’s central themes. Shrines is a 38-minute-long album of love songs, but it’s not about the kind of love you see in awful Kate Hudson movies. This is love at its most deeply intimate, obsessive, and frankly, a little creepy. That those lyrics are delivered in James’s alluring falsetto only reaffirms something which became evident the first time I heard Purity Ring: they have the ability to be both utterly seductive and a little dangerous at the same time.
These are edgy little tunes delivered with a deceptively sweet coating. Opener “Crawlersout” immediately establishes what you should expect: clipped, processed beats; tight snares; the occasional appearance of mournful, treated background vocals; and throbbing, washed-out synths. Buried constantly in the mix is the voice of Megan James, for the most part drenched in reverb, but nevertheless a voice that makes you listen closely even if you might not like what you hear.
On the wonderful “Fineshrine,” that gorgeous chorus line reveals itself to be “Open up my sternum and pull my little ribs around you.” This is about love at its most consuming and unsettling, and yet the music here often has the kind of backdrop you would expect on more traditional R&B and pop songs. It’s a continuation of the kind of disenchanted slow jams we have heard over the past 12 months from the likes of Frank Ocean and, in particular, Purity Ring’s fellow Canadian The Weeknd.
For the most part (and to its occasional detriment), Shrines rarely veers from that formula. When Megan James does drop the reverb for a more staccato vocal performance on “Amenamy,” she reveals a more childlike, fantastical quality that is pretty endearing, but Purity Ring remind me of Sleigh Bells, at least in the way they are two people who have such a clear understanding of how they want to sound (although they are clearly at the other end of the noise spectrum from that duo).
The one song that does stray with any significance also proves to be the album highlight. “Cartographist” slows things down even further, and features a nursery rhyme melody over the album’s most menacing bass line, which is introduced with a dubstep-style drop. As James sings “Oh my sweet fairy, our hearts did us wrong,” the song crawls slowly but relentlessly towards its layered climax. It is the album’s claustrophobic centerpiece, and proof that if Purity Ring wants to mix it up, they really can.
After the double whammy of “Cartographist” and lead single “Bellspeak,” Shrines does enter a lull from which it barely recovers. “Saltkin” and “Obedear” just sound too much like repetitions of the earlier, stronger half of the album, and it is only in the final minute of album closer, “Shuck,” with its lovely looped outro, that the album gets its footing back. There is also a guest appearance on “Grandloves” that feels jarring and out of place, temporarily snapping the mood that the album works so hard to establish. It leaves the lingering sense that while Purity Ring has an admirably defined idea of how they want to sound, they may need a little more than that to avoid the sophomore slump.
For now though, they are worth celebrating. An album forged by two people in Montreal and Halifax is remarkably cohesive considering the two members barely met during the album’s recording. It feels more like the work of joint songwriters than that of a producer and a vocalist, which it is in essence. Shrines is a work with real crossover potential, and it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine the likes of “Fineshrine” on the radio. I do wonder where they take this from here, but Shrines is certainly one of the year’s most intriguing and beguiling debuts.
For more information on Purity Ring, visit their website.