You could easily have made the argument in 2010 following the release of Against Me’s lackluster “White Fences” album that they were a band in dire straights. The album, while accessible, felt like a middle-of-the-road effort. The fan base had already started the hushed, blood-crazed chantings of “sell-out,” and to top it all off the band seemed to be in a depressing creative slump after being burned out from touring.
Not that you could have blamed them. Playing for the same fans who used to love you for being young, angry punks, but now inexplicably hate you for no longer being young or sufficiently angry enough is never a rewarding experience.
And then came the announcement. In Rolling Stone magazine, Laura Jane Grace (formerly Thomas Gable), frontwoman of Against Me, came out to the world as transgender after wrestling with her gender identity issues in silence for years. Suddenly, everything made perfect sense: the long hiatus, the depression-tinged interviews, the now-in-hindsight intensely personal lyrics from old songs and that vague feeling that the light seemed to have been snuffed out from the band.
Needless to say, it has been a pretty tumultuous four years since White Fences for Grace. What with her coming out publicly, the heightened pressure and anticipation for a new album of material, delays in the recording process thanks to a tree falling and destroying her studio, putting out the record on the band’s own independent label while juggling producing duties, the loss of the band’s long established rhythm section (Jay Weinberg on drums and bassist Andrew Seward)…
But from tough times comes great music, and every ounce of those frustrations can be heard on “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” in pure, unfiltered form.
The album hits all the emotional chords in a way that’s almost uncomfortably vulnerable; anger, confusion, frustration and depression all get their time to shine, while being blasted along to that long established “3-chords and truth,” up-tempo arena sound.
As the album title suggests, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” focuses on the themes of gender dysphoria, a subject with which Grace is quite familiar. She offers quite a hands-on lesson, never once pulling back the emotional punches and bitter truths of rejection and bigotry: “You want them to notice/The ragged ends of your summer dress/You want them to see you/Like they see any other girl/They just see a faggot/They hold their breath not to catch the sick,” Grace barks angrily on the powerful opener and title track.
While gender dysphoria and Grace’s personal experiences are the album’s focus, it never becomes too alienating for those who are unfamiliar with transgender issues. The themes of acceptance, depression and loss are the oft repeated notes, and Grace’s intensely personal songwriting style cuts to the heart each time, somehow marrying heartfelt lyrics with that never-stopping roll-licking punk-rock energy.
On the downside, that never-let-up tempo becomes repetitive and a bit monotonous. With the sole exception of the supremely effective, haunting acoustic number “Two Coffins,” there isn’t a lot of variety in the melodies; some of them even sound lazily piped in from old Against Me songs.
This becomes especially noticeable when the lyrics take a step back in quality. “Unconditional Love” all but kills the momentum, sounding like a throw-away bar band jam with boring bro hymn interspersed (though granted, bro hymns about love aren’t particularly common so there’s that). And “@#$%mylife666” has a cumbersome melody that fails to deliver any punch or go anywhere exciting.
But the highs far outweigh the lows. The band’s ability to craft good fist-pumping melodies remains as tight as ever. Power pop-flavored “Dead Friends” almost channels the Replacements. And final number “Black Me Out” may be the best song on the whole album, closing things out with a snarling, empowering “@#$% you” to bigots/greedy record labels/broken promise makers/fickle fans.
It would be unfair to call “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” a return to form for Against Me. But if the last few tumultuous years – coupled with Grace’s brave public coming out – have reaffirmed anything, it’s that they’re a band that’s quite happy to eschew being put in a conventional box. Whether it’s fickle record labels, unpleasable fans or just a few ignorant bigots, no one’s telling this band how they should sound or who they should be. And you know what? Last I checked, that’s pretty punk.