Friday, 31 January 2014

Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues


Against Me! has had themselves a pretty wild ride these last 17 years - an artist that in some circles went from being an absolute unknown, to ideal punk icons, and to others they sold out from their sneering anarcho-punk roots. Now, their lead singer Laura Jane Grace, born Tom Gabel, has suddenly found herself as this huge iconic figurehead for the transgender community, as she bravely came out to the public and her decision to continue making music in the punk scene. It was at this point that Against Me! began writing and recording their most difficult album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, which is a fairly self-descriptive depiction of Laura’s emotional struggles over her entire life. The question is, would the album be her magnum opus, or a huge publicity stunt? Stay tuned lovelies. 

So to put things in perspective, we start with the first Against Me! studio album, Reinventing Axl Rose. It was released in 2002 and has since come to be regarded as a pretty great record by lots of respectable folks. It’s notable in its folky style, taking cue from folk-punk legends like The Pogues and Violent Femmes, but in a sincere and uniquely new hardness to it. Think GG Allin levels of energy but with the sanity of someone who can write lyrics as witty and poignant as those featured in the records big hit “Baby, I’m An Anarchist!”, a thundering call for, well, anarchy. This is the album to hear when going through that quintessential Alex DeLarge phase of life with all the anger and angst that accompanies it. 

The follow up, Against Me! as the Eternal Cowboy suffered a bit from sophomore slump, a slicker album that felt over-produced and the cultural posterity in lyrics and song titles with names like “Cliché Guevara” does have a pretty short shelf-life, and does not make for repeat listening. They rectified this considerably with their third studio release, Searching For a Former Clarity, a surprisingly intellectual concept record dealing with themes of self-isolation and disassociation. A splendid joy for fans of the band, however a likely a painful struggle for Grace, beginning to come to terms with her gender confusion. The next steps would probably only make things more complicated for her and her band. 

Their fourth record New Waves would find them for the first time on a major record label, produced by Butch Vig, a great producer but not exactly reputable in the folk-punk community. Not that you could really call Against Me! a folk punk band anymore, there wasn’t any acoustics on New Waves at all. The fans hated it. Diehards from the early Axl Rose-era would denounce the band entirely as too poppy and sell-outs. The same thing most bands go through, but the folk-punk hipster scene can be particularly brutal. A world of self-made cassette demoes and Pabst-Blue Ribbon doesn’t take kindly to glossy Best Buy deluxe editions and music videos premiering on Fuse TV. 

All that shit aside, it wasn’t a terrible record, if you listen to it with a grain of salt. It’s just a confused record. Laura still doesn’t seem to know who she is. Some of what she was doing before comes through on some tracks like “Thrash Unreal” and “White People For Peace” which really echo the lyrical nihilism and anarchic themes of her early recordings. But there’s some definite flaws as well particularly with tracks like “Borne on the FM Waves of the Heart” and “Stop!” are examples of substandard. Additionally, Laura’s coming to terms with her gender and issues start becoming apparent in songs like “The Ocean” which, in retrospect is a great song, giving hope that perhaps an album of material like this would be just as good. 

Against Me! returned with a fifth studio album White Crosses featuring a new drummer and sounding wearier and somewhat like elder-statesmen, which in part, they were. They’d been playing shows for more than ten years together at this point. And Laura seems to really empathise with the anger of her fans at their selling out and abandoning them, but systematically calls them out on this and a need to grow up and move on, adapting and not so much selling-out as, being a realist. The lyrics of “I was a Teenage Anarchist” are an absolutely fantastic sequel to “Baby, I’m an Anarchist” Spitefully flicking off all the punk-ass former fans while wistfully wishing for the days when she was one of them. If only the rest of the album held up to that particular tracks standards, this might have signalled a new era of greatness for the band. It was not to be. One or two of the other tracks are decent and similarly nostalgic for younger simpler days, but just not the same. The Foo Fighters styled riffs and power chords just don’t suit the band very well. 

Financially speaking, both White Crosses and New Waves were very successful, prompting of course the assumption that the band might stay with this style. There was always the chance they could return to their more acoustic and punk roots though. 

Then Laura decided to come out as transgender in a fearless article with Rolling Stone. She announced her intent to remain the lead singer of the band, and promised their long-time fans she would rock just as hard in a skirt. It proved to be true; they played several shows post-gender transition to ravenous and supporting fans. The punk rock community being supportive to the plights of an emotionally damaged feminist transsexual? Maybe there’s hope for the GOP too. 

So then last year the band announced their sixth studio record, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, a chronicling of Laura Jane’s struggles. It came out this month and it’s pretty good. Albeit it’s a bit of a mess, in the sense that it is trying to regain some of the fierceness of their early days as well as maintain their newer slicker sound, and their dynamic with two new band members, this time a bassist as well as a drummer is without question a bit uncertain but all that becomes irrelevant in the opening slashes of the title track as Laura screams furiously about her entire life’s woes and the clanging energy of Reinventing Axl Rose’s “Pints of Guinness” is felt for the first time since then. 

Not every track is at that level of excellence. But there’s a few that definitely shine fairly brightly. “True Trans Soul Rebel”, “FUCKMYLIFE666” and “Black States” are good examples. There’s filler, there’s shitty over-produced nonsense, but Laura’s heart is definitely here. Be you a fan of their early stuff, their new stuff or simply interested in this very brave girl’s story, you should listen to this album. It’s not a grand masterpiece of sexual discovery and not perfect, but it’s heartfelt and earnest and that is enough. 
~Johnny Hoel
6.8

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