Between ethereal contrast and outdated homogeny
The synth-pop duo Purity Ring has always fused dark and atmospheric instrumentals with light, child-like vocals and disturbing lyrical imagery to create a sound distinct to them. As the genre of synth-pop morphs in trends and wavers in popularity, the Purity Ring formula stubbornly persists. Their latest album, Womb, wallows on their distinct musical palette, refining their sound in some tracks while marking it outdated in others.
The album is most interesting on its slower tracks, where Purity Ring refine and master their signature sonic contrast through subtle experiments. “rubyinside” opens the album with its thrashing synths over sparse beats. Vocalist Megan Jame’s whispery, steady performance never steals attention but subtly rides the dramatically swelling instrumental to tie them together. The track is as abrasive as it is sensitive. The sweeping synth ballad “ almanac” is a gorgeous break from the constant bombastic drums in the tracklist. With layers upon layers of different vocal effects sensitively mixed and balanced, the track feels ethereal and grand yet contained and directed, aloof and robotic yet personal and passionate. Both tracks see Purity Ring successfully venture out of their comfort zone, even if slightly, reminding listeners of the subtle experiments that have always made their music interesting.
The better cuts on Womb, while not as striking, effectively honor both the distinct Purity Ring sound and its influences while using this sound to propel their production to an exciting and self-aware direction. On “i like the devil,” Purity Ring brings a new air into once-popular sounds like marching drums, piano interludes and bright synth leads, combining cliched elements to reinvent them. The result is an unexpected, exciting, nostalgic banger. The closer “stardew” is exciting in the same way. The track is expertly mixed, creating a grand and ecstatic pop cut. Jame’s performance perfectly blends and mixes the whispery tone in verses and the anthemic declarations in the chorus. Compared to the other cuts on Womb, Jame’s vocals on “stardew” also feels the least edited, leaving audible the consonants, the pitch slides and the breaths, ending the album on an endearingly human note.
On the less self-aware cuts, Purity Ring exploits their own sound palette to the point of monotonous repetition. While “i like the devil” reminisces and reinvents, “sinew” and “vehemence” regurgitate. In a failed attempt to resurrect mid-2010s EDM by drowning its cliched synth leads in reverb and incorporating the familiar trap-inspired beat, “sinew” and “vehemence” sound dated. Both reverb and trap-inspired beats are extremely familiar territory for Purity Ring, giving these tracks an unjustified sense of safety and self-assurance as they rehash the same sounds from their last unexciting effort, Another Eternity (2015). On these tracks, Purity Ring fails to decide, on a scale of Chainsmokers to PC Music, where they want to land in terms of irony and self-awareness.
While Purity Ring helped pioneer this particular brand of synth-pop back in 2012 with Shrines, they refused to grow and change when their contemporaries, as well as the genre itself, have been shifting constantly. This serves as a double-edged sword: the duo’s sounds are instantly recognizable, but without proper treatment, they run the risk of appearing dated. Womb reflects this quality to Purity Ring’s music. The album remains an enjoyable listen with transcendent highs, but it’s hard not to wonder what it could have been had Purity Ring not been stuck with the sounds they’ve been recycling for almost a decade.