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Review: Priests, ‘Nothing Feels Natural’

D.C. quartet destroys the public/private political line on ferocious new LP

/ March 2, 2017

Photo by Priests

You can’t unhear Priests. Their songs have a distinct way of getting under your skin, lodging their emotions and ideas deep inside a place where most art can’t access. I find certain lines of their lyrics regularly passing through my head. On their 2014 track “And Breeding,” vocalist Katie Greer sneers “Barack Obama killed something in me,” before adjusting into an almost cheeky tone for the next phrase “And I’m going to get him for it.” What does she mean? Certainly Obama’s failures killed the naive hope of a generation who backed him, but how will she get him for it? As I’ve anticipated the the release of Priests’ debut full-length, Nothing Feels Natural, the phrase and other lines have lingered and hung in a way that I imagine must be true for other fans, maybe even for the band members themselves.

On the new LP’s title track, there’s a phrase that that similarly gripped me. A sobering truth that revealed something I intuitively believed deep down but maybe, veiled by my own privilege, didn’t want to accept: “This is when I’d give a god a name / but to people in sanctuaries you will not be saved.”

Here, the vocals are sung delicately, subtlety, and you have to follow the line with intention to hear it through, as Greer delivers it slowly over many measures and after a squall of guitar feedback. The line rings true as DACA recipients and those in “sanctuary cities” become targets of ICE raids, and right wing terrorists attack Muslim and Jewish religious spaces. Priests’ song was almost certainly wrote before Trump was elected, when Obama was betraying “Hope” and deporting more immigrants than any previous president. We now somehow find ourselves in even more dire times, and the line becomes even more necessary.

The song is ostensibly separate from such macro political issues, though, focusing instead on the personal. Greer speaks to how nothing feels natural within her, to how she contains different selves, singing “Perhaps I’ll change into something / swing the other way.” But Priests has always made clear that the public/private divide is a false distinction, that the emotions we feel individually are caused by broad collective politics and are therefore indistinguishable by systemic issues. 

Greer repeatedly destroys the public/private line in a thirty-five page interview conducted with Jenn Pelly that came with the vinyl. We have a political “climate where it’s easy to feel alienated and abstractly heartbroken about a lot of things,” she says. “It makes sense to me to explore those things from a small personal place and also what does it mean if we’re all feeling this way?” 

The record plays with these false divisions, as the first half of the album (with the exception of “Appropriate”) comes across as more inward facing (about friendships, the creative process, sadness) while the second looks outward, asking listeners to “Accept the triumph of the machine” and “Consider the options of a binary” on standout tracks “Puff” and “Pink White House.” The record of course mocks that easy surface analysis, always twisting it around between the bigger picture and what’s inside. This is maybe most apparent on “No Big Bang,” written and sung by drummer Daniele Daniele, which likens the terrors humans continually create in the name of advancement to the terrors we confront when laboring to produce inside our own minds: “All of the sudden all the science and evolution and progress / I mean it looks good from a distance but when you’re really inside of it you realize it’s fucking terrifying / the inexorable pull of ‘progress’ / when your mind keeps running along the same narrow tract of logic for what feels like forever.” Priests’ lyrics are compelling because they’re always searching. Just like the rest of us, they’re sometimes confused, which means they’re not selling anything, but rather inviting listeners to grapple with the ideas.

On Priests’ first release, 2012’s Tape 1, the quartet created a trademark sound that they’ve stuck with but continuously refined and expanded over the years. Propelled by Daniele Daniele’s driving drums and Taylor Mulitz’s inventive, melodic bass lines, GL Jaguar’s surfy single-note guitar soars and swells alongside Greer’s eclectic vocals. With Nothing Feels Natural we hear them pushing their formula further than ever before. The band creates the space for their songs and messages to thrive, from the unhinged musical chaos that finishes “Appropriate” and the anthemic indie rock textured with piano on “JJ,” to the gorgeous cello interlude and the softer tunes, like Nicki and the title track. “We’ve never been a band that’s only into one certain genre,” says Greer in the same interview. “For us, music is all connected. How could we listen to to only one ‘type’ of music?” 

One of the key preoccupations permeating the record is how capitalism–or the “machine,” to borrow Greer’s word–is insidiously coopting punk, counterculture, or anything vaguely subversive to then bottle it up and sell it back to us. This tradition is perhaps as American as dissent itself. Not only does revolution work as a good marketing slogan, but it also quells radicalism, killing two birds with one stone for people at the top. Priests has long grappled with whether their ideas could could cut through and still be relevant when they’re channeled by an industry and system that goes against their values. Speaking to this idea in the Pelly interview, Greer speaks about experiencing depression tainted by heavy doubts of the music industry: “Even if I stop being depressed…how can I make my art what I want it to be in the world if the world I’m working in is taking what I create and using it against me?”  

Priests seems to fight cooption by going on the offensive, taking mainstream ideas and repurposing them to expose their hollowness. A sequence about the American Dream on “Pink White House” demonstrates the technique: “Come on palm trees come on soft seas come on vacation come on SUV ooh baby my American Dream / Come on sitcom come on streaming come on nostalgia, nineties TV ooh baby my American dream/ Come on nothing come on surface meaning come on cash grab, safety, masturbating ooh baby my American dream.” Or on “Appropriate” they sing, “You are not you / Contestant, you’re on wheel of fortune.” On “JJ”: “I thought I was a cowboy / because I smoked Reds.” The meaning is clear, though the satire is now more nuanced than in the band’s past: “I was really into being antagonistic and being really literal and topical with our politics, said Greer in an interview with Bandcamp. “[Now] I would much prefer to be subtle, and for the people who are already thinking about these things to be able to engage with that,”

Priests has also fought cooption by staying true to their values in their band operations, acting democratically and independently in both music and business. “I don’t really feel like at this point we’ve had to compromise at all. I’m proud of every single decision that we’ve made as a band,” Greer told Bandcamp in the same interview. After years of doing all their business themselves, the band has indeed begun working with a publicist, publisher and booking agent, but they still maintain fierce control of every aspect of their business. They even chose to release Nothing Feels Natural on their label Sister Polygon, a bold decision for a band of their level in 2017. 

We should celebrate the band taking those steps toward reaching a broader platform and making their work more sustainable. “How can we avoid being coopted?” is an important question, but so is “how am I using my platform to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?” Priests is an incredibly important and relevant band, and I can’t but help feel that a wider audience would be lucky to be coopted by Priests. The band’s ideas would shoot out further, and perhaps more people would understand that the problems they face in their own lives were indeed systemic, and maybe take steps toward fighting back on a collective level. Right now, we need bands like Priests reaching as many souls as possible.

Nothing Feels Natural is a massive accomplishment by a band who continue to grow and evolve, both musically and politically. In a world that seems to be quickly descending off a cliff, Priests offers not just a glimmer of hope, but a framework to move forward – a blueprint for how to make relevant and ethical music in an age when it’s so desperately needed. Let’s hope more people start listening.