“I thought it was Taylor Swift.”
I was playing “Push Pull,” the gorgeously shimmering lead single from Purity Ring’s Another Eternity, for a friend whose musical tastes don’t extend far beyond the radio dial. The above quote was his reaction. My friend’s point of reference is limited, but it’s not that crazy that Megan James’ lyrical moonbeams and Corin Roddick’s massive programmed swells reminded him of Swift’s sparkly, synthetic 1989. What’s crazy is that we’ve reached a point where those two artists could reasonably be confused.
Another Eternity is the kind of unabashed crossover move that’s become standard for underground darlings with mainstream potential, the sophomore effort on which an experimental project playing around with pop tropes starts to sound a lot more like a pop project with experimental tendencies. Their music remains otherworldly, but Purity Ring’s sophomore release takes the duo’s “future-pop” somewhere slightly brighter and friendlier than 2012 debut Shrines — more “Heartbeats,” less Silent Shout. It’s a leap, but it feels like a bigger leap than it really is because even as Purity Ring move toward the center, the center is moving toward Purity Ring.
In the three years since Shrines, the duo’s darkly exotic combination of synthpop sheen, Southern rap oomph, and experimental electronic weirdness has become one of internet music’s boilerplate sounds. I’m using the somewhat clumsy phrase internet music here because indie rock hasn’t sufficed as a catchall phrase for some time in an environment where “alt” culture is so aggressively breeding with the top 40. Ian Cohen smartly articulated the phenomenon at Grantland last year, noting that Sleigh Bells and Cults, once representative of the underground’s pop fringe, now sound like MOR rock bands compared to the glossy debut albums from Haim and Chvrches. With each subsequent hype cycle, indie “pop” is sounding more and more like just plain pop.
Shrines was part of that continuum, siphoning off most of the rock elements from predecessors like Phantogram and helping to usher hundreds of aspirational SoundCloud accounts in the same direction. For every case of genuine inspiration — say, Sylvan Esso — there were dozens of shameless imitators. Meanwhile, James and Roddick personally extended Purity Ring’s sound into new cultural realms through collaborations with rappers Danny Brown and Ab-Soul and dancehall stars Dre Skull and Popcaan. And although smash hits like Lorde’s “Team,” Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse,” and Swift’s “Blank Space” had no direct connection with Purity Ring, they embraced a definition of pop gleaned from the duo’s hip urbanite audience: sleek, synthetic, and impossible to pin down.
Another Eternity, then, feels like the culmination of many currents. Indie’s gradual migration toward pop, pop’s headfirst dive into EDM, EDM’s mutual love affair with hip-hop, bands conceived online manifesting themselves in physical space: All those and plenty of other recent movements are reflected in this music’s gleaming curvature. On “Stranger Than Earth,” for instance, Roddick builds a booming trap-rave production around James as she puts her own wry spin on Frank Ocean’s modern R&B standard “Thinking About You.” The synthesis is rarely that cut and dry, which is good because Another Eternity is at its worst when it slides into identifiable genre molds, particularly big, bold Eurodance cheese. More often the various components are so expertly assembled that all you notice is a breathtaking piece of music sweeping you away. The album is not just emblematic of its era; it does that era proud.
Cultural currency aside, Another Eternity excels first and foremost because the two members of Purity Ring have developed such spellbinding control of their respective voices. Roddick claims allegiance to leading hip-hop producers Noah “40” Shebib and Mike Will Made It, and you can hear traces of their influence in his constantly morphing waves of computerized bass and the way his monstrous programmed beats wobble, skip, and stutter. Yet his evolution from murky atmospherics to crisp clarity on this album is too visionary to be reactionary. Where James once might have passed for Maleficent whispering incantations in a haunted forest, now the effect is closer to Queen Elsa conjuring her ice castle in Frozen, crystalline beauty springing up around her in all kinds of shapes and sizes.
James’ personal style is even more distinct than Roddick’s. She delivers each luminous melody with the coy assurance of a siren song, shifting deftly between unknowable mystery and relatable human fragility. Her lyrics continue to be captivatingly physical, visceral turns of phrase lending Purity Ring’s music a humanity that positions it all the way across the experimental pop spectrum from PC Music’s knowingly soulless parodies. James is a master of that old show-not-tell maxim, alluding to deep emotional experiences through constant references to the human anatomy. This is an album of closing eyelids and cracking backs, of crying until your body aches, of pushing and pulling and never letting go. Even “Begin Again,” a song built around the lyric “You be the moon, I’ll be the Earth,” is marked by fiery breathing and hungry stares.
“Begin Again” as a concept is instructive here. Purity Ring were in danger of becoming one of those bands that masters an aesthetic the first time around and has nothing left to do but decay. Instead of becoming obsolete, they found a way to grow, altering established patterns just enough to rip open new possibilities without compromising their sonic identity. Working side by side in Texas, New York, and Alberta rather than collaborating over email surely helped them find new creative rhythms, and taking their time rather than rushing out a follow-up probably helped them to get it right. It’s easier to sound like the future once you’ve moved farther into it. Despite that “future-pop” tag, though, the appeal of Purity Ring’s music has always gone beyond groundbreaking. Another Eternity is another sweeping, cataclysmic pop album, and that never goes out of style.