Album Of The Week: 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.