What is at stake in the seduction of Kansas? The question rattles across the second LP from Washington, D.C. rock iconoclasts Priests: The Seduction of Kansas. Seduction evokes pleasure, sex. Divorced from romance, it is a tactic of manipulation, a ploy in the politics of persuasion. Kansas is a compass. As the journalist Thomas Frank explored in his 2004 book What’s the Matter With Kansas?, the ideological sway of Kansas has often predicted the direction in which the U.S. will move—whether leaning socialist in the 1800s or going staunchly conservative in the 1980s. “There’s something sinister about the idea of seducing a whole state,” says drummer Daniele Daniele. “You’re clearly up to something. Why would you do it?” The title—like Priests—is a moving target, probing questions about the realities and mythologies of America in 2019 without giving in to easy answers.
Entering their eighth year as a band, Priests—Daniele, vocalist Katie Alice Greer, and guitarist G.L. Jaguar—remain an inspired anomaly in modern music. A band on its own label, Sister Polygon Records—jolting the greater music world with early releases by Downtown Boys, Snail Mail, Sneaks, and Gauche—they are living proof that it is still possible to work on one’s own terms, to collectively cultivate one’s own world. Bred in punk, Priests play rock’n’roll that is as intellectually sharp as it is focused on pop’s thrilling pleasure centers, that is topical without sloganeering. The high-wire physicality of their live shows, the boldness of their Barbara Kruger-invoking visual statements, their commitment to cultural, political, and aesthetic critique—it’s all made Priests one of the most exciting bands of their generation, subversive in a literal sense, doing things you would not expect.
With fireworks of noise and arresting melodies, Priests’ 2017 debut LP Nothing Feels Natural was heralded as a modern classic of “post-punk”—but Priests feels urgently present. If Nothing Feels Natural was like an album-length ode to possibility, then The Seduction of Kansas exists within the adventurous world its predecessor pried open. If Nothing was the reach and conviction of a band pushing beyond itself, willing itself into existence on its own terms, then Kansas stands boldly in the self-possessed space it carved. Its 10 pop songs are like short stories told from uncanny perspectives, full of fire and camp. They make up Priests’ most immediate and musically cohesive record, a bracing leap forward in a catalog full of them.
The path was not easy. Following the amicable departure of bassist Taylor Mulitz (now leading Flasher), Priests was faced with a challenge not unlike “sawing off the fourth leg of a chair, and rebuilding it to balance on three.” They had to rethink the interlocking dynamic of their band. “It’s almost like the version of Priests that made Nothing Feels Natural really died; we didn’t have time to grieve about that and also had to build a Frankenstein’s monster of a new version of Priests,” Greer says. The uncertainty brought a kind of freedom.
With nothing to lose, Priests took risks, leaning into a realm of greater poetic license, of surrealism, menace, and pleasure. Jaguar reimagined his guitar playing, inspired by Bowie’s Berlin trilogy and his late-1970s guitarists like Carlos Alomar, Adrian Belew, and Robert Fripp. Greer embraced lyrics “that felt intuitively fun and good” and shed anxieties about being misunderstood. Daniele moved towards more easeful rhythms, contributed a spoken-word interlude, and sings three songs. Meditating on the USA they arrived at sinister themes, sketching out characters who acknowledge their power over others and questioning (sometimes by virtue of ignoring) why it sometimes feels good to be bad.
Priests enlisted two primary collaborators in writing, arranging, and recording The Seduction of Kansas. After playing cello, mellotron, and pedal steel guitar on Nothing Feels Natural, multi-instrumentalist Janel Leppin (Mellow Diamond, Marissa Nadler) returned to breathe air into Priests’ demos, serving as primary bassist and a fourth songwriting collaborator on The Seduction of Kansas. The band also found a kindred spirit in producer John Congleton (Angel Olsen, St. Vincent), recording for two weeks at his Elmwood Studio in Dallas. It marked the band’s first time opening up their creative work to collaborate with someone outside of their DC-based community—a decidedly less hermetic approach. Priests found a third collaborator in bassist Alexandra Tyson, who has also joined the touring band. The songwriting process saw the group once again analyzing the textures and scopes of albums as aggressive as they are introspective, like Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, Portishead’s Third, and Nine Inch Nails’ Downward Spiral.
Greer remains one of rock’s most evocative lyricists. The Seduction of Kansas stitches images of USA lore—Superman and Dorothy, cowboys and Hollywood, Pizza Hut, White Castle, Applebees, Dollar Tree, The Last Picture Show, the Koch Brothers, airplanes, cornfields, the Macy’s Day Parade, a strip mall—in vivid, novelistic detail. “I am fascinated with myth-making,” Greer says of her lyrics, mentioning a pointed interest in “the manufactured mythology of Americanism,” in the stories—true, false, erased, exaggerated—our elected leaders and society tell us, the ways we “communicate our values and our national sense of self.” The filmmaker Adam Curtis—who has used some of his documentaries to “talk about how neo-conservatism has successfully seduced the American heart and mind” through righteousness, image, metaphor—was an influence. “In a macro sense, I think if we, as sociologists of our own culture and nation, try to observe and understand these symbols and mythologies that have largely informed our national sense of self, maybe it would be helpful right now, in trying to figure out what the fuck we are going to do about this awful mess we’ve made (of the country, of the world),” Greer adds.
This oblique Americana feels appropriate at a perilous time in the U.S., when nothing feels logical. It is especially present on the album’s psychological thriller of a title track, which is Priests’ purest pop song to date, dark and glittering—though there is still something fantastically off about it, decadent and uneasy at once. Illustrating Kansas’ potent place in our national imagination—as well as “a chorus of whoever is trying to persuade the social consciousness of Kansas”—Greer sings brilliantly of a “bloodthirsty cherub choir” in a cornfield, of “a drawn out charismatic parody of what a country thought it used to be,” beckoning that “I’m the one who loves you.” It's propaganda as pop—a reminder that propaganda is everywhere.
“Jesus’ Son” and “I’m Clean” feature dark, complicated protagonists—like descendents of Kathy Acker tales—and explore the reality that one can (and often does) swing wildly between the poles of oppression and domination. Amid the vicious, cool air of “I’m Clean,” Daniele’s narrator is a murderess who emerges from a societally-induced period of dissociative behavior to seek revenge and fulfill her fantasies. On the sardonic, Lou Reed-invoking “Jesus’ Son,” Greer presents another unsavory character—a man “who thinks he is special enough to justify doing something selfish and awful.” Priests see a connection between these evil personalities and the “obnoxious, unwarranted confidence” of “American swagger.”
Elsewhere on The Seduction of Kansas, Priests’ buoyant sound boils with truths about the perverse tyranny of history. “Texas Instruments” (inspired by David Byrne’s True Stories) and “Good Time Charlie” (inspired by Charlie Wilson’s War) meditate on the violence of colonialism. The breezy “68 Screen,” sung by Daniele, is about feeling tokenized, while the spectral three-part harmonies on “Ice Cream” muse on the sweet taste of anger unleashed. “YouTube Sartre” sprung from a quiet moment, staring at the philosopher on screen: “There’s no way to overthrow the bourgeoisie/Except tossing a hand grenade into your society,” Greer sings slyly. And the riffy closing banger “Control Freak” is like Priests’ insurrectionary Bodies era, but better—a grotesque, funhouse depiction of a power-tripping person at war with the two sides of themselves.
While Priests mention, as usual, a compelling array of references—from the Chris Kraus essay “Pay Attention” and the Eileen Myles anthology The New Fuck You to The Twilight Zone—they hesitate to delineate it all. Greer sees that as a pro-art gesture. “I believe very deeply in the healing, sustaining, and transformative power of art, both on a personal and societal level,” she says. “It is essential to our wellbeing, and it is constantly under attack in so many big and small ways.”
“These days, people are trying to justify the utility of art by explaining that it’s educational, or teaching morals or values,” Greer continues. “People want to pick apart art and media and figure out if it is saying something Important or if it is Problematic. In the USA we don’t have a public education system we can be proud of, we raise people to be obedient rather than think critically. As a result, we put this bizarre expectation on our media, entertainment, and art to educate us, and sometimes we even decide that if art isn’t performing this task, it isn’t really worthwhile. That’s a horribly anti-art attitude to take; I’m super against it. I tried to keep that central to my contributions to this album.” Without offering a mandate in either direction, The Seduction of Kansas asks us to consider these stakes, to consider the consequences of a binary.
In her iconic essay "Against Interpretation," the cultural critic Susan Sontag wrote, “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” It’s a line that has informed the aesthetic vocabulary of Priests, who are not prescribing answers but still suggest a profound one: In the daily crisis, we need to think our way through. “Art is meant to be incendiary, meant to make you feel and see and enrich your otherwise tepid human existence,” Greer says. “It’s been fun to bring that sensibility to Priests more, to write songs about possibly awful people doing questionable things, to adorn a song with enticing baubles that don’t explain themselves... but, I hope, will seduce the listener closer.”