In May of 2012, Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! did something that no high-profile rock star had ever done before: She came out publicly as a transgender woman, announcing plans to transition fully within the next few years. When Grace revealed her identity and her intentions in an interview with Rolling Stone, it wasn’t just a landmark moment in her own life. It also marked the beginning of a new chapter for a band that seemed to be nearing the end of its story.
By the time Grace gave that interview, Against Me! had already completed its own transition from idealistic folk-punk outfit to big-time rock act with 2010’s White Crosses. Though critically acclaimed for its huge sound and tight songwriting, Crosses felt like the final nail in the coffin for a band that had once made such a big deal about anarcho politics and DIY ethics. Lead single “I Was A Teenage Anarchist” may have been catchy, but it also sent a confusing message to fans who took the words of “Baby, I’m an Anarchist!” as gospel. “The revolution was a lie” is an epiphany purchased with age and distance, but a compelling battle cry it is not. If defeated ambivalence is all you have to offer, well, maybe it’s time to pass the torch on to the next generation of idealists.
This is all to say that last year’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues not only represented a watershed moment in transgender visibility, it also saved Against Me! from itself. Another White Crosses and we’d be lamenting the bloated carcass of a once-great punk band. Instead, we got probably the most important rock album of the decade, at least in terms of its social implications. Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a raw, candid, and catchy-as-hell exploration of gender dysphoria, and also a road map back to relevancy for a Gainesville band that had come dangerously close to losing its way. This might sound cynical, but it’s no less true: If Grace hadn’t opened up about her gender identity back in 2012, nobody would still be talking about Against Me! in 2015.
And so here we are, not only talking about Against Me!, but ready to accept their second live album as something more than filler between studio recordings. 2006’s Americans Abroad!!! caught the band right before they hopped to a major label, and those circumstances made it feel like a preemptive eulogy for their raucous Gainesville days. 23 Live Sex Acts, on the other hand, is a forward-looking record, and a celebration of a future that once seemed unlikely at best. It puts Grace’s gender identity front and center, dropping songs from the band’s most recent album between longtime fan favorites such as “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong” and “I Still Love You Julie”. The result is a powerful document of what Against Me! once was as well as what they have become, with no ostensible fissures separating the two.
If you’ve been to an Against Me! show in the past couple of years, you can attest to Grace’s development as a performer. Transitioning can do a lot of things to a body, but it doesn’t necessarily affect a person’s voice or sheer physical presence. Grace continues to use both to her advantage; when she’s not feverishly barking syllables into the mic, she’s strutting across the stage like the NBA2K version of Joan Jett.
We don’t get the visual component on 23 Live Sex Acts, but the album retains the energy of a live show in almost every other way. Though the mix sounds polished enough, the actual performance is littered with not-quite-perfect renditions of songs that sound more candid in their new context. “I Was A Teenage Anarchist” opens with a partial (and partially ironic) cover of “Fuk Shit Up” by East Bay punks Blatz, “Thrash Unreal” tries on different vocal inflections to see if they fit, and “Pretty Girls (The Mover)” features slightly altered lyrics that speak more honestly to Grace’s struggle with gender dysphoria.
Are these the definitive versions of each song? Probably not, but they add up to a live set that’s all the better for its strange moments of serendipity. When Grace stops the show in the middle of “New Wave” to yell at a security guard for kicking a kid out, it’s more thrilling than awkward. This kind of thing happens every once in a while at Against Me! shows, and it fits on an album that cares more about documenting chaos than rounding out the sharp edges.
Of course, 23 Live Sex Acts is also a coming-out party of sorts, and the songs that resonate the most are the ones that tackle Grace’s trans identity head-on. It’s one thing to hear the lyrics to “True Trans Soul Rebel” on a studio recording, and it’s quite another to hear the crowd chanting along to a chorus that ends with “God bless your transsexual heart.” The intimacy of a confession is replaced with the euphoria of a connection, and it’s clear that Grace and her compatriots in Against Me! have learned an important lesson in the last couple of years. It’s easy to turn those clapping hands into angry balled fists, but at some point, you’ve got to open up those fists into an embrace.
Essential Tracks: “True Trans Soul Rebel”, “Pretty Girls (The Mover)”, and “Black Me Out”