[MUSIC: Interview] Purity Ring
Purity Ring is a curious name for a band. It conjures ideas of chastity, immaculacy – an untainted, white, gleaming sound, utterly clean and uncluttered. Purity rings apparently originated in the ‘90s among sexual abstinence groups in the United States. The idea was that the virginal teenage members of these groups would wear the rings to remind them that resisting sexual urges until marriage was the right thing to do.
In the context of the music on Shrines, the duo’s first album, the name takes on richer, darker undertones – the face of the music certainly seems clean, or clear, but its strident rhythms seem to explicitly allude to the unabashed sensuality at the core of hip hop and modern RnB. It’s music that makes you want to move, and revel in your faculties, rather than pretend they don’t exist. “I think we chose the name long before we knew what we would sound like,” says Megan James, Purity Ring’s vocalist. “Actually, we don’t usually answer that question, because there isn’t really an answer. We didn’t put that much thought into it. It flows well. When someone asks what it means, I don’t mind just saying, ‘No, don’t think about it that way. That’s not what it is.’”
That such a potentially potent symbol should turn out to be a dead end is frustrating, but appropriate. Part of what makes Shrines such an appealing prospect is that it’s difficult to read. Assembled over the internet between Halifax and Montreal, it feels very much a product of the web age. Its instruments are all digital, their sounds pristine and precise. Generically, it’s heavily allusive, drawing in elements of ‘cloud rap’ vassals like Clams Casino or oOoOO. It also seems to share the headspace of acts like Grimes or Laurel Halo – all sickly high definition soft-synths and gently Auto-Tuned vocals, signifiers that imply the emptiness of the most fickle of Top 40 pop music.
Accordingly, Purity Ring’s music has elicited the tag ‘future pop’, which fits well. It sounds futuristic, and it also shares much of chart pop’s clear-eyed, forward-looking palettes. Most importantly – as James perspicaciously points out – the term ‘future pop’ is just another empty placard, signifying nothing and explaining little; a characteristic fitting for something born of the internet. “I think calling it future pop, in a sense, is calling it pop music,” she says. “The word ‘future’ can mean a lot of things. But I think, when it comes down to it, it means absolutely nothing. It’s kind of like adding an element of space, like an ‘x’ or something, if it were math. X pop. Whatever kind of pop. We consider it pop, but it’s indefinable at this point.”
So much about Shrines begs to be taken at face value – to be treated in the same way you would the perfunctory array of some dazzling Flash animation, or a pragmatic, iTunes chart-topping hit. But the dynamism of the arrangements, and the dazzling, simple beauty of the songs’ harmonic structures and melodic cadences, suggest barely hidden depths. The lyrics are another hint at the possible thematic complexities of the record. James’ innocently childish voice belies verse that revels in disconcerting corporeality – she sings of tearing skin, of spreading sweet flesh over earth like some sort of agrarian balm. On ‘Fineshrine’ she implores the listener to cut open her sternum and curl her ribs around them. It’s viscerally unsettling, but also weirdly inviting and intimate.
Despite its wealth of imagery ripe for interpretation, it’s still difficult to shake the feeling that Shrines is little more than a simple pop album at heart. Perhaps looking too deeply for meaning is missing the point. Maybe this record should be heard as a Top 40 pop homage. I ask James: Why is it people still listen to that variety of pop, when its newer permutations pose so many fascinating avenues to discover? “It’s the catchiest thing there is. It’s well produced, it’s easy to listen to, it’s smooth for the most part,” she says. “Another reason, I think, is because we’re told to. It’s like if you turn on the radio, that’s all there is. It’s easy, in that sense. It’s easy to listen to, it’s easy to sing along, the lyrics are simple, you don’t have to really think about it, and it’s there. It’s available. It’s like eating. Would you rather a sandwich with dry bread, or a sandwich with soft, fresh bread?”
There’s nothing wrong with treating music as a functional object – aural wallpaper for your work cubicle or a way to blank out the sound of your commute. But if we’re to hear Shrines as functional pop, or an amalgam of so many already paper-thin influences with no depth of its own, isn’t something lost? Doesn’t music lose its meaning if it’s created to just go down smoothly? “I’d like to think that listening to music can be a learning process. Sometimes it’s not. It’s just so that [people can have] noise,” says James. “I hope that people listen to what I’m saying, so that they can think about it. I want people to think about it. With pop music, there’s definitely a lot less to think about in terms of lyrics. But if you’re listening to the production, and paying attention to the people who write that, that’s a whole other world that’s surpassed in the general population of listeners. Corin [Roddick, Purity Ring’s instrumentalist] listens to only Top 40 music, and he gets a lot out of it. He chooses to listen to that, not just because it’s easily available. It depends what you’re looking for. If you just want it to be there, then that’s what it is.”
What: Shrines is out now on 4AD, through Remote Control Records