Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues

I’ve been working for Stereogum for something like two and a half years now, writing literally thousands of blog posts, and I’ll stand by nearly every one of them. But there’s one towering exception. When Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace came out as transgender, I was so totally shocked and taken aback — the leader of one of my favorite bands is not who I thought she was! — that I wrote something that both reflected that shock and took it into, for some godforsaken reason, outright snark. (The post is still here, if you’re morbidly curious.) I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking beyond the obvious surprise. But what I should’ve known — what I probably would’ve known if I’d taken a few seconds to think about it rather than rushing to get the post up — was that my shock had no place in that piece, and my snark damn sure didn’t. My surprise was my own problem, not Grace’s. It’s a huge and massively courageous step to come out as transgender, and people who take it deserve unwavering love and support, not publicly expressed befuddlement in some dude’s blog post. My reaction, of course, wasn’t the worst one on the internet; plenty of anonymous troll types took their reactions into outright hate-crime territory. Still, I expect better of myself. And now that the new Against Me! album Transgender Dysphoria Blues is out there in the world, I expect that far fewer people will make blundering asshole mistakes like mine. Because Transgender Dysphoria Blues is an album so bracingly powerful and sharp and cathartic and full of life that it should, and will, recalibrate some people’s view of the universe. It’s a great rock album by any metric, but the greatest thing about it might be that it has everything at stake.

Against Me! have been among America’s finest punk bands for more than a decade, but back when Laura Jane Grace was still known as Tom Gabel, there was a deep tension between the thundering drive of the music and her knottily eloquent lyrical ideas. Back then, she was singing about vast impersonal political forces, and she was doing so in these convoluted mystisyllabic word-benders that really should’ve never worked. But the all-out forward momentum of the music, and Grace’s own fearsome yowl, drove the songs home, turning them into something like anthems. The band’s best songs — “Don’t Lose Touch,” “White Crosses” — were always the ones where she would easy up on the clunky verbiage and let loose with a few simple exhortations. On Transgender Dysphoria Blues, that’s no longer an issue. These songs are built on complicated feelings, but Grace expresses them as broadly and directly as possible and never using any more words than are absolutely necessary. Maybe Grace is writing differently because she’s newly cognizant of her status as a poster-girl for an entire way of life, or maybe, as some commenters have suggested, she’s feeling like there’s a weight off of her shoulders. Maybe, because of the four-year wait between albums and the label and intra-band issues she’s had to deal with, Grace has just had time to obsessively rewrite and hone these songs. But whatever the cause, this newly laser-direct incarnation of Against Me! sounds like an absolute revelation, a band with purpose and direction and something to say.

A lot of what Grace has to say, of course, has to do with the idea of realizing that you were born into the wrong body. The first line on the album is “Your tells are so obvious,” and that song, the title track, goes on to describe the sort of crippling self-consciousness that many of us can only imagine: “You’ve got no cunt in your strut / You’ve got no hips to shake / And you know it’s obvious / But we can’t choose how we’re made.” Other songs are dominated with images of suicide, and one, “Paralytic States Of Dependency,” describes, in detail, the scene leading up to a hotel-room suicide. (Rates of suicide are extremely high among transgender people.) The lyrics of “Drinking With The Jocks” are a scene of Grace, pre-transition, hanging out with misogynist fuckheads, screaming what then must’ve gone unspoken: “There will always be a difference between me and you.” But the way she delivers that line isn’t some introverted mumble; it’s a full-on stomp-snort rock-star whoop: “yaaahhoww!”

That sense of purpose extends to the songs on the album that don’t talk about Grace’s identity. “Dead Friend” is some extremely real shit — a song about a person who died way too young — and the way she sings “Goddam, I miss my dead friend,” it’s so plain and pissed-off that it sends my mind reeling to every dead friend I’ve ever had. My favorite song on the album is “Black Me Out,” the rousing and anthemic closer, a song about wanting to be free of the assholes controlling your life. (Plenty have speculated that it’s about the band’s time on a major label, and that interpretation makes sense, but Grace says it’s about bigger things than just that.) If I’m reading it right, the one acoustic song here, “Two Coffins,” is about a heartbreaking certainty that occurs to every parent, usually within hours of becoming a parent: One day, your kid will die, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Even there, though, Grace communicates these feelings with a few pointed words: “How lucky I ever was to see / The way that you smile at me / Your little moon face shining back at me / One day soon, there’ll be nothing left of you and me.”

But at least on this album, heavy thoughts don’t make for heavy music. And one of the great things about Transgender Dysphoria Blues is that it’s a very rare case of a rock band, in 2014, just fucking going for it on every song. There’s no lo-fi distance, no genre-experimentation games, no embarrassment about the idea that singing and playing a guitar is an outmoded form of expression. Instead, all there is is rip-spit-roar. It feels weird to call Transgender Dysphoria Blues a punk album. Punk, at least from one definition, is the spirit of negation, of saying no to whatever you’re handed, and this is an album concerned with the aftermath of that, of finding a place to feel positive about yourself and the world. The music, for the most part, isn’t a hyperspeed pummel. It’s a focused, fearsome, anthemic wail. The riffs have room to swing, and the hooks drill their way into your brain. Parts of it remind me of the Who. Everything is recorded to hit hard, and even on that one acoustic song, nothing ever fades into the background. Grace’s voice, always raggedly strong, is more coiled and expressive than it’s ever been. And the whole thing doesn’t read as tolerance-expansion homework or anything; it’s jumping-around music, and it’s fun. All 10 songs rocket by in less than half an hour. I’ve been living with the album for months now, driving around to it whenever possible, howling choruses out the window, jabbing my fingers in the air, the whole thing. It’s an album built for that — for catharsis, for immediacy, for the sort of singalong experiences that make you feel more alive. It’s also the best 2014 album I’ve yet heard, and there’s no close second.

Transgender Dysphoria Blues is out now on the band’s Total Treble label. Stream it here.

Other albums of note out this week:

• Mogwai’s grand, cinematic, badass Rave Tapes.
• Alcest’s grand, beautiful shoegaze experiment Shelter.
• Warpaint’s tricky, elusive, gorgeous self-titled album.
• Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra’s searching, majestic Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything.
• Damien Jurado’s dependably pretty Brothers And Sisters Of The Eternal Son.
• I Break Horses’ bleary sophomore effort Chiaroscuro.
• The Hidden Cameras’ glammy comeback Age.
• Indian’s bloody-minded stoner-metal onslaught From All Purity.
• Avichi’s ambitious black metal slab Catharsis Absolute.
• Shy Boys’ self-titled “landlocked surf” debut.
• Together PANGEA’s snotty garage-punk attack Badillac.
• Marram’s collab-heavy benefit album Sun Choir.
• The star-packed benefit compilation BOATS.
• Ty Dolla $ign’s Beach House EP.
• Drudkh & Winterfylleth’s split EP Thousands Of Moons Ago/The Gate.

Comments (45)
  1. Great choice (I guess?)

  2. Also of note: It’s just “Paralytic States,” not “Paralytic States of Dependency.”

    Also, also: I can’t agree that it’s the best of 2014, because if we’re going by that rule, then White Crosses was the best of 2010, New Wave was the best of 2007 and so on. Meaning, while the lyrical context is remarkable for the reasons discussed, Against Me!’s sound has not changed for quite some time. Less Butch Vig gloss here, but that’s about it.

  3. I’ve never been an Against Me! fan, and this album won’t change that (I’ve just never been able to merge pop and punk in my mind), but everyone should have to listen to this album at least once. The way Grace bears her soul is mind blowing.

    My hat is off to her and her band mates.

    Now back to Ty Dolla $ign.

    • “I’ve just never been able to merge pop and punk in my mind”

      That’s a damn shame. I don’t have a lot of history with Against Me! But pop and punk make for often amazing bedfellows.

    • there is a drastic difference between the anarcho-punk awesomeness of Reinventing Axl Rose and As the Eternal Cowboy, both instant classics, along with the earlier EPs, and the punk/pop but really more just power pop of pretty much everything since then. some good pop tunes on the later albums but i really wish they had changed the name so a clearer distinction could be drawn between the two.

  4. Great write up Tom. I think many people can relate to your initially ignorant reaction (including me) that you summed up in the first paragraph. It speaks to the power and importance of this album that it helped sway your (and my) ignorance into a place of encouragement and understanding.

  5. Why on earth does Pitchfork feel the need to compare Mogwai’s EIGHTH album to their first? Mogwai haven’t sounded like Young Team in 16 years, get over it already.

    • i’m going to have to go ahead and agree with pitchfork on this one. not with the comparison to mogwai’s past (i guess no one will get over that) but because the first two released tracks were kind of a feint, and the rest of the album just sounds like mogwai. not that sounding like mogwai is such a bad thing, but i have to admit i’m pretty disappointed with it so far. it seems a bit inert.

      • Nothing wrong with disliking the album, it just seems weird to constantly wonder aloud why they no longer write songs like Mogwai Fear Satan and Like Herod.

        • A better comparison would be with Mogwai’s second album, CODY. I thought a lot about this one listening to Rave Tapes. Besides, RT is one of my favorite Mogwai albums but I would tend to put their first one in a category on its own. They never sounded like that ever after – and I also believe that no other post-rock band really did either.

  6. This album is huge, the title of it alone…i mean it’s the definition of punk rock to just attack shit directly right? so i love the title, but yeah it’s the energy, it’s huge. the first 2/3 songs are probably the best starting songs on a rock album i’ve heard in years. from there it gets a little boring but yeah then picks up at the end, but to me this album really can be boiled down to the chorus ‘God bless your transexual heart.’ that line alone will probably save dozens of lives, and that’s heavy and very cool.

    btw all the Dave Grohls of the world need to listen to this album and get RE-inspired, quit over-thinking it people, just ROCK!

  7. From the Grantland piece on LJG from last week (which I thought was quite good, the subsequent Essay Vanderbilt fiasco notwithstanding):

    “If this were a world where rock radio programmers didn’t blanch at heavy-riffing singles in which the chorus asks, “Does God bless your transsexual heart?,” Blues would be blaring out of car stereos everywhere for the next 18 months.”

    I think (or at least hope) it still will, this is definitely a driving-around-howling-choruses-out-the-window-jabbing-fingers-in-the-air kind of album, I’ll be doing just that on the way home tonight (well, maybe not the window part, since it’s minus-20 Celsius out there, but anyway).

  8. this is my first time ever listening to against me, really liking it so far.
    they played in my city last week, now i’m kicking myself for not going

  9. What a great fucking album! No bullshit, all (transexual) heart.

  10. After listening to this album, I can say that they didn’t “lose touch.” Its right up there with New Wave and White Crosses. Good stuff.

  11. I feel this actually better than a lot of their more recent albums, a better balance between old and new.

  12. I am extremely proud of Laura, both for her daring to embrace an aspect of herself that must be so hard to reveal (in public, no less) and to then take those emotions and put them to music.

    It all makes me wish I didn’t think Against Me was a terrible band.

    • Wait… why?

    • If you’re referring to his Warpaint review, I agree. A 5.7 score alongside the brutal cutdown he dishes out for an album that actually is very good when you consider their growth and Flood’s mesmerizing production is just another asinine example as to why he is one of the worst music critics to get paid for his opinions. And then in a week, he’ll give some reheated emo band an 8.0 for making a carbon copy of a Promise Ring album.

      The guy is basically a walking cliché for your predictable whitebread male listener standards: Dude gets a hard-on over anything resembling Aughties indie rock, indie emo / pop-punk / post-hardcore, maybe some accessible electronica and the obligatory hip-hop all-stars like Drake, ‘Ye and Kendrick.

      So like you said, FUCK [REDACTED].

    • It’s at the point that when [REDACTED] pans a record, it makes me want to listen to it even more.

      • And even when he gives a high score and positive review to an album you also enjoy, you notice that the reasons he enjoys it are totally not the reasons you do, and you wish there was no overlap between your tastes.

    • I’d give Ian Cohen’s early reviews a 9.1 but subsequent ones wouldn’t be higher than a 5.4.

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    • People who use the term “pc”.

    • People who use the term “neckbeard” – ugh.

      What does any of what you said (“ultra-pc reddit-ethic meme spouting neckbeard of a website”) have to do with the album? I would have thought, given your first line, that you would have hated the album BECAUSE of Laura Jane Grace, but that seems to not be the case. What’s your story?

    • Almost every song on the album deals, directly or indirectly, with the trans issue. The word “transgender” is RIGHT IN THE TITLE, for crying out loud. The fact that the music is straightforward and hooky makes it much more likely that it will reach a larger audience. That’s not a “huge and powerful statement”? You would have preferred they make a sloppy, noisy album that nobody but old punk scenesters would want to listen to? Fuck outta here.

  15. very courageous move for Laura confronting her insecurities head-on

  16. i reject the idea that “don’t lose touch” or “white crosses”, or anything post-As the Eternal Cowboy, is one of this band’s best songs.

  17. To me, this album made me feel like I was in 10th grade again. Full review:

  18. Just wanted to give The Hidden Cameras’ album Age a shout out. It’s extremely solid with some total jams on it. Loving the vibe/aesthetic of it. And also with some positive queer themes, so this goes well with Transgender Dysphoria Blues.

  19. Warpaint is definitely my Album of the Week. I can certainly see how some would find it dull, but I love how the grooves just slowly insinuate themselves… almost like they’re speaking to my sub-conscious.

    IMO “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” is comfortably middle-tier for an Against Me! album. Still a deserving choice, though.

  20. sex changes are so gimmicky in music. obviously just did it to get people to buy their album.

  21. Up until yesterday I had never heard one note of Against Me! That said, given a twitter recommendation, I’ve listened to Transgender Dysphoria Blues about 6 times in the last 24 hours. I haven’t been this excited about a rock record for years. Laura has created something that I hope my kids would go punk as fuck over. I swoon upon Laura’s honesty and can only hope that this will inspire a generation in need of a heroine.

  22. Insert a joke about Dallas Buyers Club, I’m too lazy to think of anything right now.

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