On the one hand, it’s a fantastic time to be Purson. Rock’n’roll is starving for a band like them, something mystical and weird and colossal in scope; the kind of outfit who might be capable of anything and who travel by Lear jet or they don’t travel at all; a group of mysterious, fashion-forward glamourpusses who maybe worship the devil but will definitely buy Aleister Crowley’s decrepit Loch Ness hideout the next time it’s up for grabs.
They’re a direct conduit to stranger, spookier times when rock still vibrated with magical properties. They aren’t just a band – they’re a lifestyle. They make you want to wear kaftan robes and sell bootleg cassettes of their shows from the trunk of your car. They’re Fleetwood Mac for the hip and satanic.
But as any band with a successful debut can tell you, the sophomore slump looms large. Once you’ve spent two years building your brand, touring the world, inciting flames of Pursonmania, the crucial follow-up is your make-or-break moment, perhaps the last major one until you burn out and vanish forever on the streets of Marrakesh, or however it is occult rock bands break-up.
Incidentally, that’s the major shake-up on Desire’s Magic Theater. One of the reasons Purson’s debut got snapped up in greedy fistfuls was that it landed smack-dab in the middle of the then-burgeoning occult rock craze, a retro-rock renaissance that not only spawned the skeleton-poped pleasures of Ghost, but also an almost endless set of female-fronted neo-doom bands wholly dedicated to circa-’71 downer rock and swathed in witch hats and deep lavender amp covers, from Blood Ceremony to Jex Thoth, The Devil’s Blood to Ruby The Hatchet. A gushing, crimson wave of syrupy, girl-powered dope’n’roll crept across the land a couple years back and it was like living on the set of The Satanic Rites Of Dracula. And it was pretty groovy, really.
But you won’t find any suspicious bite marks here: Purson have largely abandoned the haunted house trappings. In fact, if we’re honing in on the era reflected in its sound, Magic doesn’t sound like an early-70s record – it’s like something swirling out of the Fillmore in 1968. To evolve, Purson have gone deeper into the past.
Witness their masterful lead-off single Electric Landlady for ample evidence of this new wrinkle. It’s essentially a psychedelic pop number frolicking pleasantly under a warm and fuzzy Hendrix riff. It’s like the druggy Beatles stuff and the even druggier Alice Cooper band stuff, and the lyrics are like Hotel California as written by a teenager zonked on her first dose: ‘Collecting the water off a duck’s back/Drinking it down and turning those black clouds into rainbows and smiles.’
That’s the tricky beauty of this record: the songs have elements that are already familiar. A piano fill will remind you of The Faces, you’ll hear an organ solo that sounds ripped from an old Brian Auger record that never existed, the fantastically catchy Mr Howard threatens to turn into Spirit In The Sky at any moment, but never does.
It’s impossible to hear Rosalie Cunningham’s voice and place it in this shamefully pedestrian modern era. Hearing Purson’s ethereal frontwoman on the other end of a cell phone signal would be a real soul crusher. If Desire’s Magic Theatre has done anything, it’s embedded Purson so deeply into the age of Aquarius that it’s quite obvious they’re never coming back.
Which is not to say they’re a retro act: they aren’t. They’re simply not of this time or this place. And neither is this album. Look closely and you’ll find all the elements of an epic concept album, up to and including closers (The Bitter Suite, Unsure Overture) that seal the experience in swirling, climactic organ rides with enough ba-ba-bump vocal harmonies to fuel half a dozen Mamas & The Papas records.
Lesser bands would’ve doubled down on the more marketable aspects of their sound and image – more Satan, more doom, bigger golden amulets – but Purson have taken a different tactic entirely, concocting a fuzzy sunshine-pop record that just happens to be as heavy as a bad day on the Spahn Ranch.
Purson are moving forward into a brave new world that’s actually the old world reimagined. They are sonic shamans in a digital age, encouraging you to worship at the altar of ancient analogue tape hiss, asking you to swallow whatever pills they offer. Maybe it’ll make you big, maybe it’ll make you small, but Desire’s Magic Theatre will change you one way or the other. Prepare to lose your mind in the best way possible.