NOTHING FEELS NATURAL by Priests
Favorite Tracks: “JJ,” Nicki,” “No Big Bang,” “Suck”
Musical genres are as much an indicator of attitude as they are of sound and texture. When people think of punk music, they’ll usually conjure images of the raw, mosh pit-generating guitars and throat-shredding vocals of Minor Threat rather than their stick-it-to-the-man rebelliousness and DIY spirit. The existence of folk punk like the Violent Femmes is testament to the inclusivity of the genre; as long as you have authentic rage and an unwillingness to do things any way but your own, it doesn’t matter if your guitars are acoustic and you don’t have so many piercings that you could be lifted off the ground by a magnet. NOTHING FEELS NATURAL has a few too many instances of rough draft song structure, but it more than makes up for it with loads of rambunctious vocals, personality, and caustic denunciations of cultural and societal ills.
Right from the album opener “Appropriate,” it’s very clear what Priests’ mission statement is. The kinetic drums and fluid bass tones, with grooves right out of Siouxsie and the Banshees, are hallmarks of great post-punk that extend through the whole album, and the descending guitar riffs about 100 seconds into the song add a great nervous tension. The seamless combination of dread and propulsion is consistently well-executed and engaging, but what is not so seamless is the disjointed second half of the track, a flaw that extends to several other cuts like “Leilia 20.” That track devolves into lethargic finger-picking and tenuous cymbals that, while atmospheric, kill any momentum and feel more suited for an album closer rather than an opener.
Outside of some incomplete ideas that weren’t so much fused as they were crashed together like a kid playing with Hot Wheels, there isn’t much to complain about on the instrumental side, especially in the superb, reverb-soaked rhythm section, but NOTHING FEELS NATURAL truly vaults itself into greatness with its lead singer Katie Alice Greer. Much like PJ Harvey’s greatest work in the ‘90s, she consistently sounds on the verge of a breakdown. She has no confidence in what she is saying and interrupts herself mid-sentence or repeats herself until she believes her own words. At times she sounds more like a drunk who has had one too many and can barely walk straight, like on “Puff,” but otherwise her performance is full of energy and urgency that, much like the music, alternates between sinister and snarling.
While the song topics are often familiar for punk music, the unorthodox writing and vocals breathe new life into stale topics. There are attacks on materialism and consumerist culture, former inauthentic friends and partners, and getting over past insecurities and guilt. However, “No Big Bang” and “Suck” provide the most food for thought, with surprisingly shrewd, philosophical critiques. The former questions traditional ideas of progress and science and the emptiness of only pursuing a life through rationality, while the latter attacks a friend with way too much regard for authority and no other concepts of morality. The song, and the entire album, ends with, “I was walking down the street, lady said to me, ‘It’s always / white boys like you obsessed with the police,’” an obtuse line perhaps indicating a narrow view of what makes for right and wrong reserved only for those who don’t have to worry about such things on a daily basis.
Over the years, punk has forgotten that it needs to be challenging, both on an auditory and an intellectual level. While NOTHING FEELS NATURAL has a jangly surf rock feel at its core, it’s surrounded by cavernous production and occasional off-tune guitars and pianos that match the raspy, howling vocals and punctual songwriting. It’s unfortunate that some of the compositions feel unfinished, because it would be an instant recommend to anyone otherwise. As it stands, it’s a great album with plenty of conviction and power that may overwhelm, but always challenges.