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Priests - The Seduction of Kansas Music Album Reviews

The Washington, D.C. band’s second album is dense with ambiguities, sacrificing their debut’s quotable one-liners in favor of character sketches about the everyday banality of evil.

In early 2017, precisely one week after the presidential inauguration, the Washington, D.C. band Priests released their debut album Nothing Feels Natural. The fear and frustration then gripping half the nation was the backdrop for their indelible first impression: a readymade context for alternately hooky and abrasive guitar songs like “JJ” and “Pink White House.” At the time, they were heralded as if they had conceived, written, and recorded a record in a matter of weeks, rather than months or years. In the face of a corrupt regime, punk bands were going to be great again, and Priests had the fortune and misfortune to be mistaken for one.

Two years on, Priests appear ready for a realignment. Their second album is called The Seduction of Kansas, which is snappier than its inspiration, historian Thomas Frank’s 2004 book What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. They’re still politically conscious agitators, and this time, they want to be clear that they’re taking the long view. Don’t expect a treatise on middle America’s rightward creep, though; geographic Kanas is a distant, metaphorical concern on these songs. The state that receives the most attention is Texas, where the band—minus original bassist Taylor Mulitz, who’s replaced on record by Nothing Feels Natural collaborator Janel Leppin—recorded with producer John Congleton. Perhaps to memorialize the experience, they’ve compressed the region’s geologic and political history into the two compact verses of closer “Texas Instruments.”

Priests’ limited palette of sounds likewise allows The Seduction of Kansas to strike a more restrained tone. “I’m Clean” and “Ice Cream” strip surf rock for parts; new touring bassist Alexandra Tyson’s knotted bass is a highlight of the title track, where bandleader Katie Alice Greer sings of “a drawn-out charismatic parody of what a country used to be.” Kansas is inherently political music, powered by the same oblique fury that made U.S. Girls so compelling. These songs are dense with ambiguities, sacrificing the debut’s quotable first-person one-liners in favor of character sketches and scenarios that prompt more questions than they answer. At the same time, they’re uncomfortably realistic, sprinkled with everyday banality-of-evil references: Augusto Pinochet, the Koch Brothers, Applebee’s. The most straightforward song, “Good Time Charlie,” recounts the United States’ arming of the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s, with vivid lyrics inspired by Mike Nichols’ 2007 film Charlie Wilson’s War.

Not every track requires such complicated footnotes. On the searing opener “Jesus’ Son,” Greer lets loose a thrilling guttural sneer, indicting American exceptionalism and militarization: “The day I walked on water, the shrapnel ricocheted/Said, ‘Baby give it to me, Savior I’m how the West was won.’” The unnerving “Control Freak” calls upon Dorothy, the quintessential Kansan, slipping the thinnest veil of fiction over a protagonist in the grips of paternalistic mania. “You’re out of the woods, Dorothy/I’m your control freak/I’m your ‘no place like home’/Bedsheets tucking you to sleep,” Greer sings, as hair-raising reverbed chords spin out into a demented boogie.

Though the album’s characters marinate in a toxic brew of fear, normalization, and lies, its aesthetics have more in common with conceptual art. These songs toy coolly with the power of the gaze, at turns demanding attention and deflecting it: “It’s your movie/You wrote starred and directed it/I may only be your muse/But I’m necessary,” goes the closing chant of “68 Screen,” the feminist assertion of a disenfranchised actress. Meanwhile, on digital-only track “Not Perceived,” Greer instructs, “I’m uneasy about anything that might perceive me/Keep your eyes closed.” This is the sound of a band working to privilege interpretation and subjectivity, concepts that cause otherwise reasonable people’s eyes to glaze over. Priests happen to be doing it just as mainstream attitudes about the value of the humanities approach a nadir; no wonder onlookers tend to assume that art must be done at society, rather than in it.

Like some of its more theoretic inspirations, The Seduction of Kansas runs the risk of being seen as shallow, self-important, and a little nihilistic. It’s a critique almost invited by a title like “Youtube Sartre,” a scratchy, brutalist song with the simultaneously existentialist and didactic chorus, “Don’t believe yourself to be/A virtuous thief/Or virtuous about anything.” Too urgent to ignore, too pretentious to easily love, The Seduction of Kansas winds up feeling both high-concept and kind of hollow, whether inherently or in natural reflection of its subject matter—because what, in the long view, is more morally and intellectually bankrupt than American empire?

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