Transgender Dysphoria BluesTotal Treble
By Dustin Blumhagen
This album is undeniably a cathartic release for Laura Jane Grace. This is first Against Me! release where she is officially frontwoman rather than frontman. The overall theme of the record understandably focuses on the emotions and thoughts that accompanied her coming out as a transgender woman and learning to live life openly in her new role. There are ups and downs, heartbreaking moments of doubt and hatred tempered by the sweet relief of finally embracing freedom to be who she really is.
As undeniably monumental this release is for the punk scene (and rock and roll in general), the actual music shouldn’t be overlooked because of the message. The three men who make up the rest of Against Me! have helped give life to Grace’s words. This is one of the rawest rock and roll records the group have ever released, with gritty production and occasional blemishes, which are laid bare alongside the lyrical confessions. This is the least radio friendly Against Me! release in years and the band don’t waste the opportunity. It is not Reinventing Axl Rose by any means, but the group have evolved their sound over time and lineup changes and it is undeniably for the better. There are shining moments of beauty, which perfectly weave their melody around Grace’s heartfelt poetic lyrics. There are also chaotic raging punk rock songs, which distill her words into pure vitriol, seething against homophobic bros and the pressures to fit in.
The album kicks off with the punkabilly stroll of the title track, which sonically most represents the sound that the band explored on White Crosses. No time is wasted getting to the point, with Grace proudly owning her gender identity singing some of the most affecting lyrics on the album. She balances sorrow and anger when she sings You want them to see you like they see any other girl… They just see a faggot, seething as she delivers the final line. But the whole experience of openly living as a woman has obviously had a positive effect on Grace. Despite the pain that is evident throughout the album, she has moments of uneasy acceptance, such as 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. Previously heard on the True Trans EP, True Trans Soul Rebel still stands as the most emotionally stirring track on this full length. While her experience is very much her own, the song draws on a well of empathy and tugs at your heartstrings with its stirring words. When Grace’s voice almost breaks while singing you should have been a mother, you should have been a wife… you should be living a different life, your heart breaks along with her. This is the strength of the release; it evokes feelings in anyone who has felt they didn’t belong. It is safe to say that most listeners are not struggling with gender identity like Grace, but it is comforting to know that there is someone out there who stands as a beacon for those who feel alone, who feel left out and lost in a large world. That is what has drawn so many people into the punk scene for decades, searching for a place to belong.
The band kick things up a notch on Drinking With the Jocks, a raging rocker that simultaneously stands as a “fuck you” to ignorant bro culture and expresses deep longing to just fit in. It is fast and angry and one of the most punk songs that we’ve heard from Against Me! in a while. The interestingly titled Obama Bin Laden As The Crucified Christ has a classic rock sound, which evokes thoughts of Led Zeppelin, which is a little weird at first, but grows with repeated listens. The other track that was prereleased on the True Trans EP, FuckMyLife666, showcases the evolution in Grace’s voice, which has more melody these days and slightly less grit. This evolution has been happening for a few albums now, so it isn’t a dramatic shock, but it really stands out on this album. It is a pretty rock song, which asks chipped nail polish and a barbed wire dress, is your mother proud of your eyelashes?
The album isn’t entirely focused upon Grace’s gender identity though. The album continues to follow latter day Against Me! with a lyrical focus on personal themes, instead of wide spread political themes like their earlier work. Both Dead Friend and Two Coffins focus on the relationship between love and death. The lyrics return to the struggle of gender identity on Paralytic States, which tells a sad tale of struggling with life. It reads like a heartbreaking obituary with jarring lines like cut her face wide open, shaved the bone down thin, plumped her lips up exaggerated, a fucked up kind of feminine and standing naked in front of that hotel bathroom mirror… she still saw her mother’s son.
At times listening to this album feel awkward, as if you are snooping through someone’s most personal thoughts and feelings written in their diary. It makes you angry, sad and hopeful all within a half hour. It’s an emotional roller coaster and you are riding along with Laura Jane Grace, sharing in her pains and triumphs. Musically, it stands among Against Me!’s best, but lyrically, it stands as one of the most important releases of a generation. This is not empty teenage angst, this is pure emotion bled out onto the page and poured into the microphone.