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Fire-starting D.C. punks Priests started work on their transcendent debut several years before election day, so don’t blame them if Nothing Feels Natural feels relevant in the extreme at this moment. Since debuting with Tape One five years ago, the four-piece have never stopped shredding through corrupt power hierarchies and attempting to disentangle personal freedom from consumer choice. Across two tapes, a single, and an EP, they’ve used a deranged sort of surf rock to launch lucid, grimly funny exposés of the false binaries and systemic oppressions that built America. This, after all, is the band that screamed, “Barack Obama killed something in me and I’m gonna get him for it.”
As we enter 2017, we’re in danger of tying every faintly despairing new piece of culture to the ascent of America’s Cheeto-in-Chief, as if January 20 flipped a switch that instantly soured all milk. But injustice wasn’t born earlier this month; it just became apparent to many who never had much cause to worry about it before. And the lyrics to Nothing Feels Natural show the existential weight of having spent a lifetime fighting. Priests’ debut has an entirely different energy from their previous releases, expanding into a rich diorama of stinging guitar, funk, yearning indie pop, and jazz. The leap in range and ambition from their 2015 EP Bodies and Control and Money and Power is huge: There hasn’t been a punk debut this certain and poised since Savages’ Silence Yourself.
The title works a few different ways. There’s the obvious what the fuck sensation that accompanies your early morning Twitter scroll these days, and Priests have always done a mean line in sardonic disbelief. There’s less of that on Nothing Feels Natural, though it’s no less potent: “Pink White House” is a hostile cheerleader chant about the illusion of choice, where the disorientation mounts alongside Taylor Mulitz’s spiraling bass. On the boisterously funky “Puff,” Katie Alice Greer sneers at accelerationism—the crackpot academic theory that society hitting rock bottom is good because it will surely engender radical change. And on “JJ,” she balks at how easily we let branding influence the way we construct identity. “I thought I was a cowboy because I smoked Reds,” Greer wails, as surf riffs and battered piano behind her evoke a debauched saloon caper.
Priests have always had a keen eye for fakery and bullshit, though on Nothing Feels Natural, they’re confronting ‘normalcy’, a force far more insidious than artifice, because the partisan values informing it are invisible. “It’s a long movie, a long movie/And you are not you, you are not you,” Greer exhorts on opener “Appropriate.” Adding saxophone, piano and hand percussion to their sound, they change direction from song to song much in the same way that the Clash did with Sandinista!, and commit to every hairpin turn. “Appropriate” hurtles from spiny sloganeering through nihilistic thrash to a condemned doom jazz wasteland, leaving the listener as alienated as Priests feel. The title track brings to mind rain-thrashed British indie pop, and on “Suck,” Priests try their hand at nimble ESG-indebted funk, though Greer’s frustrated pleas expose the dark underbelly of the New Yorkers’ effervescent cool. She had to stop screaming because it was killing her throat. The desperation in her singing voice might be more jarring than her howls.
Priests have always been thrillingly direct, but that hasn’t stopped their words being twisted by publicists who want to profit from them (“You hinge your success on that which you might bleed from me,” Greer sneers on “Nicki”) and guilty parties who interpret their calls for respect as personal attacks (“Please don’t make me be someone with no sympathy,” she pleads on “Suck”). Here, they sound unusually worn down by commodification, a lack of good faith from those around them, and the difficulty of surviving as a punk band: the title Nothing Feels Natural could also signify that the abyss has started to feel like home. We’re told that this is where punk thrives, at the bottom of the barrel—accelerationism, again. Priests reject that idea in the most forceful terms. Led by drummer Daniele Daniele in a relentless, disbelieving sing-speak, the terrifying “No Big Bang” peers into the void of shame and failure that accompanies creativity. On the title track, a depressed Greer satirizes the sacrifices she’d make to feel balanced again. “If I go without for days will I finally hallucinate a real thing?” she pleads. The self becomes a slippery concept: “People are born and dying inside of me all the time,” Greer sings on “Lelia 20.”
When kakistocracy reigns and George Orwell’s 1984 is a bestseller again, you might wonder if now’s the best time for Priests to get introspective. But their insistence on wriggling free from definition and feeling the weight of darkness has roots in resistance. On “Nicki,” which rings with cavernous dread, Greer intones, “I don’t make friends easily or naturally,” sliding over the consonants like an eel escaping grasping hands. Priests’ insistence on mutable identity, and their disinterest in pinning down a 10-point plan to vanquish fascism, let them slip free of those who seek to gentrify, identify, commodify. In a society where it’s becoming increasingly apparent to everyone that your words can and will be used against you, Nothing Feels Natural is a valuable philosophy.Share