When asked what she felt she had to be in her youth, Laura Jane Grace replied, ‘angry white guy in a punk band’. Since then, she has become an inspirational figure for the LGBT community worldwide.
In that same article Grace, the singer, guitarist and general mouthpiece of Florida-born punk ensemble Against Me!, openly identified herself as transgender for the first time. She was born Tom Gabel – and it was Tom Gabel that formed Against Me! as a solo act in 1997, slowly adding members, fans and positive reviews until that article surfaced and changed the story of the band irrevocably. This led to their newest record, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, being one of the most anticipated – and important – punk albums in recent memory.
Transgender Dysphoria Blues represents both a figurative and literal change in the band – but the dense, melodic punk they have been playing since their inception remains largely intact and well-constructed. Laura Jane Grace is joined by long-time bandmate James Bowman and journeyman punk Atom Willard on drums. It follows two albums on a major label, and was inspired by the Sex Pistols and New York Dolls.
The project got off to some false starts before it was completed, and the album that was released is the third incarnation in all. The first version was recorded before a tour, and dumped immediately after. The second was recorded with Jay Weinberg, who quit before the album was finished. After Atom Willard tried unsatisfactorily to complete the album, the band decided to record a whole new version with Willard on drums and Laura Jane Grace on bass, with contributions from Fat Mike.
Initially conceived as a concept album based on the trials and tribulations of a trans prostitute, the concept veers near to (but never really close enough to) autobiography for Grace. The sense of entrapment and claustrophobia – and dissatisfaction – within your own body is overwhelming throughout, especially if the listener carries any emotional baggage with them into their listening experience.
Unwittingly, Against Me! have created an album that could easily collapse under the amount of words and characters spent on its creation and creators. But that, thankfully, does not happen. The music itself is amongst the finest Against Me! has ever released – firstly, Osama Bin Laden As The Crucified Christ is a biting, leather-jacket punk cut with a killer melody and a Manic Street Preacers Holy Bible level of vitriol. The guitars buzz and chime in the slow-burn intro, leading to a proto-metal swing built on slashing chords. The rhythm is fixed around tightly-wound riffs that push it to the front of the selections on the album.
Opener Talking Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a disarming cow-punk anthem that introduces the concept and themes of the album in resplendent fashion. Lyrically, it’s intriguing in its honesty – “your tells are too obvious, shoulders too broad for a girl” feels like a cathartic admission – or a mantra of self-hatred. “You want them to see you like they see every other girl… but they just see a faggot” is the most barbed line on the track – Grace writes memorable, cutting lyrics, and lines this poignant are littered throughout the album.
Drinking With The Jocks is a live-wire, chunky punk tune with shoutalong backing vocals and some highlight-reel drumming from Willard and the superbly-titled True Trans Soul Rebel is the most direct track here – its polished rock-isms shine brightest of all the songs by bringing a guitar melody to the front and centre, allowing Grace to sympathetically shout along on top of it.
Unconditional Love has a classic punk feel without seeming clichéd. The bouncy rhythm and handclaps are augmented with “Ho” and “Hey” background chants. It seems designed to fit neatly into the new live set, which it will do nicely. FUCKMYLIFE666 is chiming melodic hardcore, not too dissimilar from SST-influenced college rock in sentiment and delivery, and as such is another potential live favourite.
Paralytic States is (unintentionally) a damaged twin of When You Were Young by The Killers, only replacing Brandon Flowers’ vague lyricism with Grace’s thoughts on dependency, while Two Coffins is acoustic-noir that reminds the listener (this listener) of art-rock at its most delicate, complete with a haunting vocal melody and romantic lyrics. Two Coffins has a soothing, dry vibe that handles the scrutiny of multiple listens easily. It’s a great track. Dead Friend is another Bob Mould-esque bruiser, and Black Me Out leads the record into a noisy final dose of vicarious catharsis.
The album sounds like the record Laura Jane Grace has wanted to make her entire musical career. It synthesises her catchiest punk with her deepest critiques. Throughout there’s a sense that you are listening to something important. The music feels more anthemic because it sounds like it matters. The last time anything this emotionally severe was attempted, the results were the confused, self-indulgent Lulu project by Lou Reed and Metallica . Grace here is completely sincere and completely on-form. It can be quite a bracing experience, but it becomes clear on first listen that Grace trusts her fans with her stories. Great records like this don’t come along very often.