The Second Coming of Purity Ring
WOMB delivers a complex spiritual reflection for today’s distant world
The electro-pop band, Purity Ring, might not be a household name, partly because the two-member act’s overwhelming sound and often gory lyrics don’t subscribe to the popular palette of musical taste. But, after a five-year hiatus since their sophomore album Another Eternity, writer/vocalist Megan James and instrumentalist/producer Corin Roddick have returned with a typically dense, but timely message.
It’s not lost on James that the last time the world heard from Purity Ring was just before it changed for the worst in the eyes of many. “2015 was the end,” she declared (probably only half-jokingly).
Now, it seems like 2020 might be the actual end.
Measures to halt the spread of Covid-19 have led to the shuttering of much of society, forcing vast swathes of the population to shelter inside their homes, exasperating healthcare services, and bringing millions of small businesses, families, and “non-essential” workers to the brink of economic ruin. Governments seem hapless and incompetent in the face of the pandemic. More poignantly, individuals cut off from their usual networks of support and social engagement are struggling to cope with self-isolation.
It is in this environment that Purity Ring offers WOMB, an album which the label describes as one that “chronicles a quest for comfort and the search for a resting place in a world where so much is beyond our control.” Sonically, WOMB might appear to be the completion of a Purity Ring trilogy, but it’s a revelatory departure from their debut album, Shrines (2012), which was cryptic, heady, and indiscernible, as well as Another Eternity, which had more crowd-pleasing offerings without sacrificing the act’s ground-breaking sound nor its lyrical uniqueness. WOMB is something new. Something different. It is the second coming of Purity Ring, and this time their promise of solace is only a cover.
Before the artists allow us to get comfortable, they strike with timely, pathos-filled vigor at the disregard of the wealthy, the historic oppression of women, and the tragedy of overlooking the vulnerability of others and living without community. James tells Apple Music that the album is “its own world, and within that world, each song is its own character.” These characters then “become mythological or scriptural.” As such, the songs are dense with meaning that can be hard to tease out.
The vocals on “rubyinsides,” the album’s first track, are almost hidden under the lustrous, vibrational music. Almost hidden — like the voices of the world’s poor who don’t have and can’t afford healthcare, a problem James thinks the world’s billionaires could easily solve. The song is “straight-up about how the wealthy are destructive, and everyone should have healthcare,” she says. “We have it in Canada, but in the States it’s so maddening… Yeah, I was mad at billionaires when I wrote that. I wasn’t even trying to say anything to anyone. I was just mad.”
Whether billionaires are listening or not, James decries them as those who “lie and believe they’ll never die.” There’s no value in their existence unless they choose to be “wise and kind.” Sure, some of the privileged speak up and express “regret,” but then they “forget” about those who are desperate for help and continue “foraging [for] treasures” — a “temporal” pursuit. Politicians may debate the reasons why universal healthcare is impossible or impractical, but James sees it simply as a matter of misplaced money. “This is a matter of wealth.” If money was in the right hands and the right places, healthcare for all would not be an impossible task.
The combined anger and optimism of “rubyinsides” gives way to a bit of generational depression in “pink lightning,” a song spawned by a thunderstorm that struck at James’ family reunion. She says the storm “was like the precursor to the turmoil of being with family.” It speaks to the frustration of younger generations trying to save a world “undone when [they] were young.” For millennials and Gen-Zers facing up against ingrained political and social ideologies, it can seem like the world will just continue “spinning beneath” them “until it falls like glass.”
One of the ingrained constructs James takes on is society’s complicated relationship with womanhood and femininity. The lyrics to “i like the devil” weave a tale of wives and mothers historically, quietly bearing the weight of their families (and humanity itself) with their prayers and labor and tears. Despite this, women have been both deified and demonized. Celebrated on one hand but oppressed on the other. Accused of being “like the devil” and held up as being “like god.”
(And, yes, this song’s title, like all of Purity Ring’s writing, is not to be taken as literally as it might seem. Pay attention to where commas are, or aren’t, placed. The real meaning is in the song itself, which was deliberately released on April Fools’ Day to mess with expectations.)
The parameters for a woman’s “happiness” and role in society have historically been determined by those “on high.” James laments how this persists in her line of work:
The power [in the music industry] still rests in the same gross hands. It’s not being handed over. It’s hard because the music industry is aware of it. A few people have had their heads cut off, but it’s still at the point where people are just being careful because they want to keep their power. They say the word ‘feminism’ and it seems like they’re aware, but that doesn’t mean they’re doing anything to change the landscape. It’s still extremely sexist…
In “vehemence,” the album takes a ‘sarcastic’ turn on religion — specifically, according to James, on “religious naivete and how prayers don’t work.” She tells listeners in what is probably one of the album’s least cryptic verses:
Climb the long stairs to the thin air
Over clouds and past the moon
Don’t look down there, leave your long prayers
There is no one here but you
James says she wants this song in particular “to feel comforting and peaceful.” Ironically, she does this by laying into a spiritual practice that brings millions comfort and peace. Her mocking of those who turn to a higher power is clear when the chorus is first sung: “Oh my, an angel! If we are brave enough, she’ll take my anger up…”
The song further questions the belief that, one day, the perfection of the Biblical Eden will be regained after the faithful fly away “in the twinkling of an eye”:
Do you think that you could ever fly
In the twinkling of your burning eye
To the forest of your fervent youth
Where began the end of all we knew?
But when the chorus is sung for the third and final time, it becomes almost hopeful — as if the artist wants to believe there are angels who will carry human anger and human causes to Heaven’s door for resolution.
While we wait on the powerful and privileged to use their wealth and influence for good and hope that angels are bearing prayers aloft, WOMB is adamant that we all can play a role in making our world a more comfortable, peaceful place. And that starts with how we relate to each other.
“peacefall” is an intoxicating reminder of how easy it is to miss out on real connection and overlook the vulnerability of our friends and neighbors. We’re so often distracted that we don’t see how others are suffering. We keep thinking that we’ll have another “dawn” (another day) when we will finally connect (and make “peace”) with those around us. But, in what is perhaps a reference to suicide, a different kind of “peace” (death) “comes at night” for those who are cut off from a network of supportive, attentive family and friends.
The theme of strong human connection continues through “sinew” and “stardew.” James says the former “is about a dear friend who lives far away and how we are the same.” It celebrates the ability to see ourselves in others and to see others in ourselves. “Now you see how you’re in me,” James sings in the post-chorus.
The Canadian vocalist describes “stardew” as being “like a sex jam.” It comes at the end of the album (and, according to the artists, is an “outlier” that insisted on being there); it’s “brighter and fuller and happier” than most of WOMB’s other tracks. Probably because it’s about abiding in a “daydream” with a close companion even when “a storm is coming.”
If each of the songs is a character in the storm-swept world of WOMB, “silkspun,” according to James, is “someone who is not built for this world — an oracle or a prophet who knows too much, and nobody listens.” She is weighed down by the world (“the world is on my back”) and she sees darkness in the future (“i’m staring into blackness”). Yet, she pleads with her listeners not to ‘forgive’ or “forget” the things that have caused so much death in the world.
Megan James herself might be personified by “silkspun” — a mythical, scriptural prophetess crying out for the world to change. Her songs are admittedly birthed from “books and books full of things she’s written” in the past. And, like a biblical seer, her message is a mix of cryptic condemnation for the present, and lusty, joyful abandon for the future — leaving us in the middle, in the now, where we can only heed Purity Ring’s feeble reflection of the Scriptural plea to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2) and love others as profoundly as possible in today’s distant world.