Retracing the spacious, hip-hop-laced narcosis of those early singles—all three of which are included here—Shrines melds the blurry mesmerism of Tri Angle acts like Holy Other and Balam Acab with slow-pitched R&B reclines and the kind of artfully-constructed but spacious pop of 4AD's second phase heyday. "Fineshrine," for example, for all of its slightly creepy lyrical turns—"cut open my sternum and pull my little ribs around you"—sounds like the deliriously sugary update of Heaven or Las Vegas-era Cocteaus, with its high-altar synth chants and a slow pump right out of Lil Wayne's "Lollipop." Both "Amenamy," with its Japanese-sounding chimes and grinding filter squalls, and the dazzling 4 AM waltz of "Lofticries," reminds of the Knife. "Cartographist," meanwhile, is a dizzy, almost broken-down stumble of a song, with Roddick's voice layered against itself within almost motionless synth blurts and vocal shards.
As with "Fineshrine" though, beneath the infectious appeal and immediacy of Roddick's productions here—the man could collect these instrumental efforts into a tape almost worthy of, say, Clams Casino—James is often sketching dark, visceral tales of fear, anxiety, rebirth. Though many can take a while to really parse, there's the sense of interwoven strains and lyrical allusions strung beneath its eleven songs; of a shadowy concept record of sorts at work with an inscrutable narrative. The human body, itself, is often invoked as a physical negotiator between spiritual human form and unease with the natural world at large, all in the eerie poesie of fantasy.
On "Belispeak," she sings: "Grandma my sleep is narrow/that you bring me some strong drink/string up the harps and set them close outside/for when my belly, for when my little belly speaks." Or, within the night-oil gleam of "Saltkin": "there's a cult, there's a cult inside of me/from a salt sprinkle it around me." On gorgeous closer "Shuck," atop only a forlorn vocal sample, James promises "when the moon is full/and I've pried/I'll dig up your guts/to the little shed outside." As a closer, it's an interesting moment and one particularly reflective of Shrines' strengths and its dualistic intrigues: the serenity of Roddick's buoyant, burbling synths amidst James's hallucinatory full-moon visions.