By Jack Evans
There was a time when I hated pop music. Like most people who hate pop music, I was in my early/mid-teens, and I was a stubborn rockist; I would concede The Beatles as “good pop music” – but they had broken up nearly four decades prior, of course, and anyway, most good music was old music, right? By the time I got to high school, I’d gotten over the “I was born in the wrong decade” bullshit, but it still took a while for me to embrace pop music. 2012 was a turning point for me in that regard – mainstream hits like Taylor Swift’s Red (uneven but fantastic at times) and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” had something to do with that, but buzzed about electro-pop projects like Passion Pit and Neon Indian provided even more significant gateways, as I was drawn to warm, colorful hooks that offered both catchiness and a degree of complexity. But the band that taught me pop positivity was Purity Ring. The Canadian duo has never been purely a pop act, but between Corin Roddick’s southern hip-hop beats and Megan James’ enveloping coo, the tag certainly applies. Their debut, Shrines, offered a blend of those familiar elements with the unknown and bizarre – pitch-shifted voices, synths that sound like water dripping in reduced gravity, James’ oblique and sometimes disturbing lyrics – that enthralled and enchanted me, and still does to this day. It also sold me on those pop sounds: they aren’t just money-making devices, they’re valuable tools.
Since Shrines, Purity Ring have toured regularly but been near silent otherwise, with a sparse social media presence and a guest spot on Danny Brown’s “25 Bucks” constituting most of their activity. Dropped seemingly out of nowhere (a Facebook post from last month seemed to reference a new album but offered no release dates), “push pull” is the first new strictly-Purity Ring music in over two years. It’s a logical evolution from both Shrines and their work with Brown, a move toward a more pop sound that’s still unique and otherworldly. There’s a traditional song structure at work here, and James’ phrasing and repetition are more radio-friendly than anything on the debut. Even still, “push pull” subverts pop conventions, as Roddick builds tension under the verse beats that fizzles out rather than crashing into the chorus, and he lends the hook an off-kilter three-note pattern that keeps it hovering just above ground. James’ lyrics continue her fascinations with the natural world (thunder, constellations, wind, and skies all get mentions) and romantic body horror (“Make a ladder of what folds and climb up in me”), and it’s that lingering tinge of darkness that elevates “push pull.” It’s blissful, alluring pop, but as James confesses “I crept up in you and I wouldn’t let go” atop that beat that never quite settles, there’s a sense that something’s amiss – it’s Purity Ring playing to their strengths while reminding the world that they’re poptimists too.