Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: after making an interesting, engaging indie-pop record, the band who made it follows it up with a sophomore release that seems like the band that made it forgot most of what made the first one so good for the sake of creating garden-variety pop that sounds like everyone else. That was the story of Canadian duo Purity Ring – after the catchy, bizarre Shrines (2012), which provided a series of grim pop songs about holes drilled into eyelids and spread ribs wide as acts of loving devotion. The right people caught on to how damn good it was, and a year later, they were remixing Lady Gaga songs, and a year later were helping Danny Brown make Old. 2015 brought another eternity, which sounded like every other band in their field, resulting in them sounding like they were just aping Chvrches. It still had some quality weirdness in it (and the stunning single “push pull”), but in the span of three years, it seemed like they’d lost almost all of their spark.

After just one listen to their great new record, WOMB, it feels like they’ve managed to strike some kind of balance. Producer/multi-instrumental wunderkind Corin Roddick seems to erase the arena-chasing aspirations of another eternity for the sake of simply polishing the hell out of their Shrines aesthetic, though admittedly he loses some of the best bizarreness of that debut (though he only waits until the second track, “pink lightning,” to toss in some pitch-shifted vocals). Truly, it sounds like what their sophomore album could have sounded like in an alternate universe, full of all the catchy, idiosyncratic moments that populated their debut. His beats cradle Megan James’ voice staggeringly well. It’s hard to put a finger on what it is, but her voice – and her ability to sound both ethereal and like a powerful sorceress all at once – feels irreplaceable amid, say, the shuddering energy of “rubyinsides” or the glittering textures of “stardew.” Unsurprisingly, James, too, sounds excellent, her talents as a singer and songwriter noticeably sharper on WOMB – even at its haziest on WOMB, she sounds infinitely clearer, and more powerful.

Here, she continues the grand tradition within Purity Ring of beautifying and even romanticizing viscera and gore, sometimes overt, others obfuscated. It doesn’t take long for her to sink back into that mode: “If I could, I would let you see through me/ Hold our skin over the light to hold the heat/ Flood the halls with ruby insides ’til we spill/ Wonder what it feels like?” she sings on opener “rubyinsides.” She also returns to the concept of crawling inside your lover on “almanac” (see: “Fineshrine” from Shrines): “I climbed a mountain/ Up your spine, I climbed inside your mind/ Up to your eyes to make you blind/ To make you mine. And again on “sinew”: “You swallowed the sinew/ My body passed through/ Before I began breathing.” Her focus expands to the fantastical side of basic bodily functions, like on “femia,” where “the sound of longing pouring out of your mouth” drowns her and the song’s subject, while “pink lightning” likens her inability to stop crying to an undying storm. The highest point is where she strips all of this back and gets deeply personal on “i like the devil,” where she grapples with the damage done by enforced gender roles within her traditional, religious family.

Ultimately WOMB feels like the most minor letdown because it lacks the novel, inventive aura that they once captured – much like how The XX spent Coexist and I See You trying to recapture the magic created within their debut, but ended up living in the shadows of it instead. For all of its positives, the one thing that holds WOMB back from feeling indispensable is the fact that it all feels so straightforward. Even with almost-fascinating tracks like “sinew” or “i like the devil,” there’s little threat of slipping into the creepy moodiness of “Cartographist” or the apocalyptic vibes of “Belispeak,” leaving you feeling like not much about them can surprise you anymore. Taken on its own merits, this is a killer pop record full of songs destined to weasel themselves into your head effortlessly (we’re looking right at you, “peacefall”). Taken with everything else, though, it feels like a talented underachiever: capable of real excellence, but unable to muster the spirit to really shoot for it. Luckily, they seem to be on a clearer path towards something really special than they did just a few years ago – maybe, one day, they’ll be able to step out of the shadow of Shrines and strip away the urge to even try and compare them.

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