When Priests unveiled a single called “Pink White House” exactly one week before the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton’s victory still seemed like a foregone conclusion. But instead of celebrating the first female president, the band exhorted us to “consider the options of a binary” as it sneered at the notion that voting for a Democrat is a way to effect meaningful change.
It’s a testament to the sophistication of Priests’ politics that “Pink White House,” like the rest of the D.C. punk four-piece’s long-awaited debut album, “Nothing Feels Natural,” cuts even deeper now than it would have in a new Clinton era. Singer and lyricist Katie Alice Greer doesn’t merely vent frustration with the election, the two-party system and the gender binary; she also indicts liberal complacency as she spits out a litany of consumerist comforts, from Netflix to SUVs, and coos sarcastically about “my American Dream.” With Clinton in the Oval Office, “Pink White House” would’ve been a tough critique from the left; now it sounds like a postmortem of neo-liberalism.
Priests have toured tirelessly since forming in 2011, Greer’s unabashedly feminist, anti-capitalist lyrics and confrontational vocals caroming off springy beds of distortion-damaged surf rock to electrify audiences across North America and Europe. Amid an introspective punk landscape dominated by largely straight, white, male pop-punk and emo revivals, the band belongs to a loose and diverse insurgency of politically engaged artists who deviate from that norm, including PWR BTTM, G.L.O.S.S. and Aye Nako. (Some kindred radicals, such as the Providence, R.I., band Downtown Boys, have released music via Priests’ DIY label, Sister Polygon.) By 2014, Priests had put out enough material, three EPs and the single “Radiation/Personal Planes,” to fill a couple of albums.
But “Nothing Feels Natural” — an apt title for the first great political punk record of a presidency already marked by a full-frontal assault on facts — easily justifies the half-decade interval between the quartet’s formation and first proper full-length. While earlier recordings came admirably close to replicating the experience of a Priests show, the album reintroduces a band whose songwriting has risen to the level of Greer’s breathtaking performances.
“Nothing Feels Natural” sees the band adjusting its sound in subtler, more skillful ways to fit the preoccupations of each song. The title track filters disillusionment through the gauze of ’80s goth pop, Taylor Mulitz’s bass lines wavering like the Cure’s as G.L. Jaguar’s guitar shimmers and chimes. Greer, who stretched her voice in new directions on “EP A,” her solo debut from last year, lets her powerful wail go breathy in an evocation of Siouxsie Sioux.
Three years ago, album opener “Appropriate” might have been a pithy exposé on false friends. But less than two minutes into its five-minute run time, Greer’s indignant yowl falls silent. Then the riffs recede. What emerges out of the cacophonous percussion that remains is a steadily thickening strand of minimal, no-wave skronk, complete with strangled horns. Only then does Greer return, moaning, “I’ve worked too hard to have friends like you anymore, so don’t ask me for an elevator speech,” as though physically fighting through the sonic muck. She is defending herself against an enervating kind of relationship, and she really does sound exhausted.
Like the smartest British punks, from X-Ray Spex to Gang of Four, Priests makes the personal political (and vice versa) by drilling down into the one-on-one power dynamics that underlie romances, friendships and everyday interactions between strangers. The band’s revelations about the way our surroundings shape the selves we show to others can be startling. Greer opens noisy “Nicki” with a quip that would seem glib if it didn’t ring so true: “I don’t make friends easily or naturally/ You can blame chemicals or you can blame patriarchy.”
Priests’ vocalist has never hesitated to look inside herself to understand what’s wrong with the world. When drummer Daniele Daniele takes the vocals on “No Big Bang,” her penetrating insights suggest that Greer isn’t alone among her band mates in unflinching self-analysis. To make music that honest takes bravery — and that, more than any aural aesthetic, is Priests’ defining trait. In an era of corporate feminism, woke pop music and the gentle progressivism of a former president, Greer and her compatriots leaned into radicalism. “Nothing Feels Natural” proves they’re equipped to take on a new sound and a new regime without sacrificing their dissident identity.