Purity Ring have always been obsessed with bodily viscera, with blood and guts and bone. Vocalist Megan James sings of love as a kind of vivisection, pleading with her partner to cut her open, to make a protective cradle of her skeleton. WOMB does not break this pattern, but it narrows the band’s focus to the eponymous organ. The blood they’ve always sung about is now a more specific kind: On “i like the devil,” it stains bedsheets; on “femia,” the narrator wakes “in a sea of dark liquid.” There is a sexual awakening afoot here, but equally, a reckoning with existence in a brand new sort of body. Over the course of these 10 glittering pieces of synth pop, Purity Ring experiment with a conceptual coming-of-age narrative. In each song we meet a young woman, feel her nascent passion and holy shame, and cast our eyes to the horizon as clouds gather, spitting lightning. We fear for her. We wonder if she’ll quell the storm or find herself swept away in it.
By pure coincidence, I’d recently picked up Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex as a quarantine project. It can be a jarring read; for every piece of timeless insight, there is some startling mid-century slap in the face, something like, “Some women become homosexual after the trauma of abortion.” But listening to WOMB, I could think of nothing but de Beauvoir’s portrait of a young girl on the cusp of her first period, who feels “danger in her insides” and struggles to imagine herself the equal of the coming crisis. “She is surprised,” writes Beauvoir, “to be both that heroine and that flesh.” WOMB’s protagonists are bleeding, yes, but they are growing powerful, too: wreaking carnage, learning to fly.
Taken together, WOMB’s songs begin to suggest the outline of a singular character: a girl coming to see herself as heroic, capable of rising to the challenges of her new body and her new role in the world, and subsumed by the weight of what that entails. Violence is abundant in these lyrics: cannibalism, death by drowning, blood coursing Shining-like through hallways. Corin Roddick’s production is no longer crystalline and clear, as it was on another eternity, but grittier and stormier, synths surging like the sea. The sleigh bells of “peacefall” become funereal, tolling as James sings of someone who rode a “bicycle into the light.” (She delivers the line so prettily you’d be forgiven for fondly imagining a scene from E.T. before the more tragic, literal interpretation arrives.) A gasp like an iron lung opens “vehemence,” foreboding bass bellows across “i like the devil,” and minor-key arrangements abound. If Purity Ring ever decide to launch a second career scoring horror films, WOMB would make for a compelling resumé.
One of Roddick’s hallmarks is to tilt the dial on James’ vocals, rendering her voice high and fluty, like a little girl’s. When James dons this mask of adolescence, she collapses the distance between adulthood and childhood. Though innocuous enough in Purity Ring’s earlier work, James’ pitch-shifted vocals take on a troubling subtext in WOMB. The technique plays into a longstanding artistic compulsion to portray puberty as a deep well of sage wisdom, a means of acquiring profound adult insight. It rings false. It throws rosy, ethereal light on a mundane experience that, for most children, is more painful and anxiety-inducing than transcendental. Purity Ring, by placing the mature perspective of an adult woman in the throat of an adolescent girl, confer upon children a maturity and sophistication that most don’t possess, and shouldn’t have to.
Still, WOMB is some of Purity Ring’s strongest work, a confident and singular statement from a band often imitated over the past decade. A newfound musical maturity takes root in its 10 tracks, signs of a more exacting editorial eye. All the more disappointing, then, that the pitch-shifting gimmick remains omnipresent, save for a single verse, on “pink lightning,” where James’ voice is manipulated in the opposite direction—belly-deep, guttural, for once the monster instead of the damsel. It is a provocative moment on a record that imagines a young girl in flux, a heroine coming to grips with flesh.