Against Me! ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’ – Review

6 Feb

It’s rare these days to find an album that truly surprises you, and if nothing else ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’ will surely surprise you. Even if the lyrics fail to move, even if the music leaves you cold, there is little doubt that  few people were expecting the sixth album from punk rock veterans Against Me to tackle transgender issues head on, in the form of a concept album about singer Laura Jane Grace’s own struggles with gender identity. But perhaps the biggest surprise is that the album works against the odds. Just think about that; a fairly innocuous and unimportant mid-sized punk band have made an album about the singer’s transgender issues that is subtle and angry at the same time. They’ve made an album about a sensitive subject with absolute delicacy yet absolute ferocity. They’ve tackled controversy head on and left you thinking about the songs and not the potential headlines. This is a masterclass in balance and craft from perhaps the last band you’d expect it from. Most encouragingly of all, their least commercial album, and first since being dropped from a major label, has become their highest charting release to date.

It charges into focus from the very beginning. ‘Your tells are so obvious, shoulders too broad for a girl / Keeps you reminded, helps you to remember where you come from.’ This is the direct language of a man who wrestles with balancing his own desires with other peoples’ expectations. This theme is reoccuring. Grace knows (or think she knows) how other people will view her: ‘You want them to see you like they see every other girl / they just see a faggot’ which leads to an urge to fit in: ‘ I’m drinking with the jocks / I’m laughing at the faggots / Just like one of the boys.’ While these moments are crushingly sad, mostly Grace sounds optimistic, confident and furiously defiant. There are still concerns about the practicalities of sex change (‘Would you even recognise me?’ ‘I don’t want us to grow apart’) but the message is one of defiance. ‘I don’t want to die without bite’ she sings early on, whilst at the album’s close she’s rejecting the jock culture she once tried to embrace -‘I don’t ever want to talk that way again / I don’t want to know people like that anymore.’ The album comes full circle in under half an hour. The energy and focus it has is unbelivable.

‘Osama Bin Ladan as the Crucified Christ’ is the only song that misfires, either musically or lyrically, and it misfires in just about every possible sense. It’s heavy where the other songs are airy, it’s cynical where the other songs are optimistic, angsty and political where the other songs are honest and personal. It’s dreary where the other songs are fluorescent. Its role on the album is actually a positive one, in that it serves to highlight just how well crafted the other songs really are.

The lyrics are the first thing that strike you but the music is equally important in a sense. ‘You’ve got no cunt in your strut / you’ve got no ass to shake’, Laura vents over a traditional three chord template. Most of these songs open with a riff before the bass and drums crash in after four bars or so. Almost everything on here arrives and leaves in about three minutes and the verse/chorus structure is adhered to, to a tee. The production is basic but as sleek and un-sophisticated as you’d expect from a pop-punk album. Some critics have called this predictable, generic musicality a failure, but actually I think it’s one of the things that makes the record a roaring success. I like the way the familiarity of the songwriting and production offsets the un-familiar lyrical content. There is a significant juxtaposition between the bravery of the lyrics and the safety of the music. It would have been odd for Against Me to suddenly start producing challenging, experimental music just because we now know the lead singer is transgender. The reality is she’s always felt this way – so what sudden impact should it have on the music? Against Me do what Against Me have always done, and you can hear the passion and love in ever power chord and drum roll.

For against Me fans (and I have to admit I wasn’t really one until a few weeks ago) the lyrics may come as a shock, but the way they are written and performed certainly won’t be. These words contain, and are delivered with, the same wit and venom that Laura has always used. The content is hardly a world a way from what fans are already used to anyway – the band have always sung about underdogs, the abused and stigmatised. Now it feels more intense, magnified, specific and personal – which partially explains why it’s so much better than their other albums. Partially though it’s their best album because it’s their first one to stand out from the crowed – in fact it feels like the first punk album to stand out from the crowd in a long time. It may just be the most important album of this genre in a decade. It’s also one of the bravest and most insightful albums you’re ever likely to hear.



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