Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Album Review: Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues

Album Rating: B+
Nearly a decade ago, alternative monoliths Jesse Lacey and company released a certain massive album to massive critical acclaim—an album so haunted by, so fixated on the universal cosmic internal dichotomy raging within themselves that hordes of worshipers couldn’t help but learn from it to question their own selves while simultaneously idolizing, myself included. Now, nearly eight years later, another two-sided internal struggle of equal (if not greater) weight has bubbled to the surface in the form of Transgender Dysphoria Blues, the first full-length Against Me! album with an open, unguarded (and fierce) Laura Jane Grace at the helm.  If you thought questioning J.C.’s three-day disappearance in 2005 was powerful, wait until you hear this.

It goes without saying that the context surrounding this album is absolutely massive. The disarmingly conventional White Crosses left many Against Me! fans unsatisfied, weighed down both by the constrictions of major label writing and Grace's increasing sense of disillusionment. “Do you remember when you were young and you wanted to set the world on fire?” she crooned overtop sparkly, overproduced vocal harmonies, clearly at war with the band’s obviously contradictory punk affluence and fame.

Though just when we all thought the fire may really be gone this time, Josh Eells’ gasoline out-of-fucking-nowhere introduction to Grace in the Rolling Stone blasted that listless light right back into retina-burning, stare-at-the-sun levels of life. In addition to an entire recontextualization of songs like “Searching For A Former Clarity” and “The Ocean,” a realignment was in order, as nearly all fans who had written off the group since the major label switch were suddenly pulled back in alla Michael Corleone to see where this would go.

The first tour in the summer of 2012 went over exceedingly well, with audiences continuously applauding during the second verse of “The Ocean,” and the subsequent True Trans EP released back in 2013 more or less silenced all concerns of stylistic sonic shifts, as if that hadn’t happened enough already since New Wave. While Graces’s delivery was noticeably less gritty, almost entirely due to the release’s unplugged format, Transgender Dysphoria Blues proves with certainty that the vocals are as unblemished as ever. “Drinking With The Jocks” leads the way in raw, unrestrained aggression as Grace grittily recalls, “I’m drinking with the jocks / I’m laughing at the faggots / Just like one of the boys / Swinging my dick in my hand,” over a classically nasty distorted bassline. The second verse gets even more jarring, with lines like “Look at all of them bitches, yeah / Fill them up with cum” speaking for themselves.

Certainly, many of these unapologetic lyrics may be rather off-putting to some, given the Florida band’s anthemic roots. I can’t really imagine a Guinness-dependent Reinventing Axel Rose beardpunk of the early 2000s finding much common ground with songs like "Paralyitic States," where Grace is standing naked in front of a hotel mirror “in dysphoria’s reflection,” unable to see past her masculine exterior. At the same time, though, there is something deeply fascinating about the chantability of the title track’s prechorus refrain, “They just see a faggot.” That slur is about as offensive as language gets these days, myself perpetually cringing at each and every misguided utterance from kids, parents and television, but so help me if Grace’s inversion of perspective doesn’t make me want to get right off my heterosexual fat ass and scream it back at the top of my lungs.

This brings us to precisely why Transgender Dysphoria Blues is as important of a record as it is.  Disregarding the fact that my MS Word dictionary still can’t recognize the word “dysphoria,” the trans* community is slowly becoming more and more visible within the public sphere, and while, at a young age, Grace's only ill-advised representation of the internal war raging within her came from Silence of the Lambs, Transgender Dysphoria Blues quickly wipes that slate clean with unmatchable gravitas.  Her solemn, weathered empathy in the chorus of "True Trans Soul Rebel" will surely serve as a warm blanket of comfort to those undergoing similar struggles even on the coldest of nights.

As the album quickly marches on, it's readily apparent how much of the excess debris has been removed since the 50 minute trudge that was White Crosses.  10 tracks at just under 30 minutes doesn't sound like much of a journey, and you'll certainly be surprised that it's already almost over by the time "Two Coffins" rolls around.  Though, an accessible immersion into an oft-misunderstood situation is definitely one of the better approaches to achieving some sort of universality, and the pure memorability of certain offerings certainly justifies multiple listens.

Updates on the band's classic approach in the form of arena rock guitar effects in "Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ" and Grace's loose, flowing vocal delivery in "Unconditional Love" help point out some of the more intriguing forms Transgender Dysphoria Blues could have taken if freed from the standard punk formula.  Though, the verse-chorus-repeat paradigm is hardly treated as optional, as some mid-album mediocrity in the form of "Dead Friend" cannot be avoided.  The subject matter is relatable, yes, but the band seems most comfortable and achieves the most power when tackling gender identity head-on.  "Transgender Dysphoria Blues" and "True Trans Soul Rebel" in tandem, despite their everyday structures, are undoubtedly the album's strongest six minutes, with "FuckMyLife666" additionally jolting new life into what easily could have been another stillborn Against Me! release, most of which rehashes a formula that has already been rehashed quite a few times.

Perhaps, though, the greatest testament to the record's power is this similarity, its jigsaw-like fitting within the Against Me! oeuvre. With each passing listen, it becomes more apparent that Transgender Dysphoria Blues is not something vastly different from the rest of the back-catalogue, and the songs will easily accompany previous material in any retrospective or live setting.  Additionally, the nasty social war in which my country (and much of the world) continues to exist may be best fought with precisely this normalcy, this familiarity, and Transgender Dysphoria Blues does just that.  If Grace thinks it's about time for "her transition to stop being an issue," making another solid Against Me! record, just like she always has, is a damn good way to start.

Track List:
1. Transgender Dysphoria Blues
2. True Trans Soul Rebel
3. Unconditional Love
4. Drinking with the Jocks
5. Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ
6. FuckMyLife666
7. Dead Friend
8. Two Coffins
9. Paralytic States
10. Black Me Out

Full Album Stream
Official Website

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