Let’s not frame this as a rebirth. Transgender Dysphoria Blues doesn’t reinvent Against Me! – it crystallizes everything that the band has grown to be over the past decade. But there’s something incredibly cathartic about getting to hear Laura Jane Grace (formerly known as Tom Gabel) sing about what she’s been singing around for years. All the subtext buried in the band’s back catalog, all the tension that comes with living invisibly female in an androcentric industry and a transphobic society, it’s all finally laid bare. And, while her lyrics don’t sugarcoat the violent reality that transgenders face daily, Grace sounds like she’s having more fun than ever.
Here, Grace gives her best vocal performance since she first refined her style on 2002′s Reinventing Axl Rose. That album hooked me when I fancied myself a teenage anarchist, lobbing endless vague rage at whatever I considered to be part of “the institution” at the time. As Against Me! broadened and then narrowed their political scope, the early songs that have aged the best are the ones that find inner life inside the sharp punk spikes. “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong” still bears the fresh scars of a family haunted by alcoholism, while “Eight Full Hours of Sleep” sounds as sweet as it ever did, as it imagines a world where no one’s hungry. Addiction, homelessness, and poverty are all widespread social conditions comprised of painful individual stories; punk songs render them better, it turns out, when they focus on the details.
Transgender Dysphoria Blues affords Grace the chance to be specific. While she’d hinted at her dysphoria in the past (most explicitly on New Wave‘s “The Ocean”, where she sings, “If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman”), she’d always shrouded the topic in hypothetical tenses and easily misinterpreted language. A gifted lyricist, she wrapped the hints up in words that got pretty. “The Ocean” speaks of water that swells and soothes the sunburns of her future children, while “Bamboo Bones” — the closer to White Crosses that now sounds a lot like it could be a trans anthem — preaches self-acceptance with nods to both God and unconditional friendship.
This album isn’t quite so gentle. There’s a lot of love in it, even an acoustic ballad that watches two lovers being lowered into the ground, but Blues bears the teeth that grow out of decades of internalized misogyny and the stress of playing male. Opening with a staunch military beat, the album’s title track spells out the anxiety of failing to pass in a culture where being visibly trans in public is often read as justification for physical violence. In one short blast, “Drinking With the Jocks” reams the sexist, homophobic bros that Grace used to try to fit in with. “True Trans Soul Rebel” courts suicidal thoughts while Grace wryly asks, “Does God bless your transsexual heart?”
But Grace does more than wring out her thoughts on gender and transition here. She’s hit that point as an artist where death’s a prominent character in her work, a shadow nagging at the fact that time is far from endless. The violence she imagines highlights the urgency to live well while you can, but two of Blues‘s strongest moments linger on the play between love and death unprompted by the fear of a sudden end. “Dead Friend” pays tribute to someone Grace lost too early in life, while “Two Coffins” suspends the hope that something of love might stick around after the body dies, or at least the hope that the love you find in life will stay with you till you’re dead.
From the gruesome, sweary brawls to the softer elegies, Transgender Dysphoria Blues comes wrapped in some of the best melodies Grace has penned to date. Raw, lean, and fiery, these songs blast right past some of the missteps that hang around Against Me!’s discography. There are no hard rock guitar tones, no excessive instrumentation, no awkward references to contemporary news headlines. Grace doesn’t mask her lyrics with excessive gruffness, a strategy that contaminated parts of Against Me!’s major label releases. She sings her words out clearer than ever. You get the sense that she’s always wanted to sing like this.
After 15 years, Transgender Dysphoria Blues lights the inner life inside Against Me!’s punk contrarianism. It’s the kind of album that transforms the back catalog leading up to it, a destination that recontextualizes the journey. Reinventing Axl Rose doesn’t exactly sound any different than it did in the angry early aughts, but now it’s possible to read the woman in “Eight Full Hours” not as a lover but as an imagined future self: “When you sleep, she’s standing there with open arms/ And one night could last forever.” Grace’s grandmother’s name rings a little differently on “Pints of Guinness” now that it’s also the name of her daughter, while the feeling of being untouchable on “Walking Is Still Honest” links into the feeling of being sneered at on “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”. Here, as in all of Against Me!’s best work, punk is rendered not as a detached political ethos but simply as the will to survive when the world around you tells you to cave in. This is an album about gender, sure, but it’s more an album about daring to thrive against the odds. Transgender Dysphoria Blues will be remembered as a milestone not because it’s the first widely known punk record performed by a trans woman, but because it brandishes a genre saturated by empty, male-centered politics to broadcast the most punk statements possible: Fuck the haters, be who you are, hold fast to those who love you.
Essential Tracks: “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”, “Unconditional Love”, and “Two Coffins”