Against Me! has uncovered their sound and themselves with Transgender Dysphoria Blues. This stems from Laura Jane Grace finding herself after undergoing gender reassignment. Her songwriting is bolder than ever, and the band is better for it. She’s covering her life and times without holding anything back.
The clarity with which Grace tackles her frustrations with her identity, society’s expectations and the transition itself through the new record’s 10 songs is nothing short of astounding. No one would ever say that Against Me! is a subtle band, and their straightforward nature is definitely a benefit here.
The album (currently streaming over at NPR) starts with its title track, which sounds like a standard Against Me! tune: power chords, big drums, unwavering bass and anthemic lyrics. “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” is much more than that because it manages to be more focused and tighter than the lion’s share of the band’s older tunes while also establishing that Grace is going to share her specific experiences through the entire album. The key is that it sounds exactly like you expect Against Me! to – Grace may have uncovered her identity and changed, but her sound has always been hers and it’s not going anywhere. Much like The Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon sang on “1930,” Grace has “found a sound and [her] heart keeps pouring it out.”
On most of the band’s albums, this song would likely be the standout. It’s fast, it’s brash and delivers a powerful message. On Transgender Dysphoria Blues, though, it’s simply one of 10 that shows remarkable personal and musical tenacity.
While there’s only 30 minutes of punk wonder to enjoy on the album, every second is sonic bliss. The band doesn’t waste any time worrying about what to say. Blues holds onto listeners long enough that they understand the message, but short enough that most everyone will clamor to press play again as soon as the last note fades.
Each tune has something to offer. “Drinking with the Jocks” is a brusque punk metaphor for feeling like an outsider. “Two Coffins” is an acoustic wish for hoping to hold on to someone forever even though “all things will fade, [and] maybe it’s better off that way.”
The real standouts are “Fuckmylife666” and “Black Me Out.” The former’s already been released as an acoustic song on Spotify, but the electric version adds depth and urgency to Grace’s lyrics. This is the song where she plants her flag and announces how beneficial her decision to live as a woman has been. After verses (and years) of worrying about regrets, Grace proudly declares, “No more troubled sleep, there’s a brave new world that’s raging inside of me.”
The musicianship supporting the message and words is on an unprecedented level for Against Me! Besides Grace, guitarist James Bowman is the only member to return for this album and his technique has noticeably grown (quite a feat for someone of his skills). Inge Johansson joined as the new bassist in 2013 and his style fits in well. His bass is genuinely rhythmic, steady and efficient as he more than holds his own against the rest of the noise. (Grace also deserves credit as producer for giving Johansson his due and not burying the bass, a common problem on punk albums.) Finally, jack-of-all-trades punk drummer Atom Willard brought his loud, kinetic style to Against Me!, managing to somehow speed the band up while keeping everyone together.
The album ends with “Black Me Out.” It starts slowly with Gracie singing over a guitar line before launching into a soaring shout-along chorus about getting even with people who think they’re in charge. The song gathers the momentum of a runaway train through the next verse and chorus before finishing with Grace lamenting how fleeting this all may be. “Don’t the best all burn out so bright and so fast?” she asks.
If Transgender Dysphoria Blues is any indication, Against Me! is doing anything but burning out. The clarity and urgency of the album show that Grace is well on her path to personal peace (if she’s not there already) and new heights as an artist. Bowman, Johansson and Willard seem to be the perfect people to fill out the band’s sound, bringing it to unheard of (for Against Me!) corners of rock that might not have been possible in previous years. Early in 2014 as it is, Against Me! likely has one of the best albums of the year here, a wonderful testament to being true to one’s self and – hopefully – the start of a glorious chapter for the group.