Given the mess we’ve found ourselves in, both domestically and internationally, some great new punk rock is really the least we can hope for. Don’t get me wrong: punk is going to play a necessary role as many of us do our best to keep the planet from spinning off its axis, but punk isn’t just now reacting to the landscape before us. Punk is, officially, 40 years old, and while it’s had its moments of wax and wane, there’s arguably not been a better time for loud, fast, rebellious music in the last 20 years than right now. You can look to bands such as Savages and Pill, who have balanced fun and ferocity. Or you can look to Joyce Manor and The Menzingers, who have made great strides in making pop punk artful and articulate. Or, perhaps, you can look to Washington, D.C.’s Priests, who funnel the energy and explosiveness of punk rock into an eclectic and consistently thrilling form of pop experimentation.
Priests’ debut, Nothing Feels Natural, is an absolute blast of an album. I mean that in every sense of the word; it’s both a caustic barrel of snotty, punk rock fun and an uncompromising critique of the modern world, less a political album than a thesis statement on poetic cynicism. When they take a stab at a love song, as on the early single release “JJ,” singer Katie Alice Greer passes up no opportunity to leave a bruise: “I can’t believe I always had such awful taste/ You were just a rich kid, low-life in a very big jacket, in a very big way.” By comparison, the playfully dark “Pink White House” makes no specific statement, but the isolated moments of clarity (“Sign a letter, throw your shoe, vote for numbers 1 or 2…you are just a cog in the machine, and I am a wet dream soft and mean”) are corrosive to say the least.
At their snottiest, Priests are good; the “I wanna start a band called Burger King” chant of “Puff” is infectious, to say the least. When Priests open up their sound, and by extension Greer’s lyrical meditations, they’re outstanding. The ominously psychedelic “Nicki” carries a sinister groove beneath Greer’s introspection: “I don’t make friends easily or naturally/You can blame chemicals or patriarchy.” The album’s most breathtaking moment is its title track, awash in shimmering surf riffs and unanswered questions. Greer’s voice is at its most expressive and beautiful, offering a haunting sort of wisdom as she condemns the sacred, singing, “This is when I’d give a god a name/But to people in sanctuaries all I can say is/You will not be saved.”
While not an explicitly political band, Priests give a voice to a familiar kind of anxiety, balancing examination of external and internal pressures without ever reaching a comfortable conclusion. What they do instead is score it with alternately gorgeous and agitated post-punk arrangements, suggesting that dancing and writhing can be good catharsis in the short term. It’s not a perfect prescription, but it’s one that’s definitely worth a re-up.