Whether you’ve followed since last year or just recently caught up, the story of Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace has been incredible to watch, and probably the most punk-rock story in the new millennium. In case you’ve been on a months-long fishing trip over the course of the press cycle behind Transgender Dysphoria Blues, Grace (formerly Thomas Gabel) revealed that she was set to transition from male to female last May in a tell-all Rolling Stone feature. And as much of a shock as it was in the punk community to see Grace—her first printed appearance showed her cross-legged and freshly showered, sporting a towel over shaved legs and another drying her hair—it’s exactly the kind of move that punk rock itself (well, a perfect vision of it) should be there to support.
Sure, looking from the outside in, it can be a violent form of expression. Fans of Gabel could have told you that—one of the rowdiest, sweatiest, testosterone-pumping, politically charged (and most fun) displays of the craft that I’ve caught was Against Me!’s opening set for Mastodon at Detroit’s State Theater in 2007, which saw the entire floor erupting in some entrancing wave of slam-dance meets real-dance meets group-sing-along-camaraderie. But punk’s dirt-and-grit, mostly open-armed ethos also make it a really beautiful movement, which at its best is tailored to express (and embrace) the individual. Well, here’s a woman who’s being herself instead of just wrapping on the standard-issue studded belts and leather boots.
Grace could have stopped commenting on her change with that feature article, sure. With a piece out that answers many people’s big questions in detail (will Grace stay with her family? Will she sound like Tom Gabel behind the microphone?), Grace almost could have left it right there and churned out any Against Me! album she wanted. Instead, we’re gifted with Transgender Dysphoria Blues, a damn-personal burst of razor-sharp anthems that tackle the topic head on. Grace clears the air with the subtlety of a wrecking ball on the title track, one that still summons a grin from me on repeated listens; and at a lean 29 minutes, we’re talking 20+ spins here easy, which will only grow in the next few months.
Take a quick listen to the first track if you can, and although it’s a song that’s direct enough that little dissection is necessary, these parts hit me the hardest:
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
You’ve got no cunt in your strut
You’ve got no hips to shake
And you know it’s obvious
But we can’t choose how we’re made
As an intro to this new era of Against Me! (like it or not, this will be billed as a turning point for the act), “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” is perfect. Grace hits the audience with a Springsteen-direct opener, which hits as hard with the little details (the crushing realization that attention’s on your too-broad shoulders, or your hip-less figure, not “the ragged ends of your summer dress”) as with the shattering language—Grace drops a c-bomb here, as well as the ugliest word on the tip of the tongues of her tormenters. And with an inbox stacked with albums retelling tales of lost love, sometimes recorded in cabins; or musings on the human condition; or on weirder days, food, Grace’s gutting honesty on this not-so-universal experience is the realest thing I’ve heard in…shit, I really couldn’t tell you how long.
The ball keeps rolling with “True Trans Soul Rebel” and “Unconditional Love,” where the album finally catches its first breath. “Drinking with the Jocks” barrels along, and this is the track that (for me, at least) brings Grace’s experiences to the masses. Again, she’s leaning on that previously searing word, “faggot,” this time relating a tale of going with the dumb-group mentality (even if it means not speaking out) that is having a few drinks with idiots:
I’m drinking with the jocks
I’m laughing at the faggots
Just like one of the boys
Swinging my dick in my hand
All of my life just like I was one of them
All of this before ending on a rigid “there will always be a difference between me and you.”
I’m praising Grace like these performances are new for her, but direct, strong imagery hasn’t been a problem for the songwriter over her 15-year career, so you’ve got a decade-long catalog to explore if this review turns you on to the band. But the point is, Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a perfect storm of great songwriting paired with some timely, frank admissions from Grace. And the result is an album that I’ve really, really loved over the past few months in getting to know it. Here’s to seeing where Against Me! moves on from here.