Even punks get the blues
Are you ready to brave new directions?” Laura Jane Grace bayed to her audience three songs into punk rock trailblazer Against Me!’s set list at the Cat’s Cradle on Jan. 14. That line is from 2007’s “New Wave” off of the album of the same name, and like a lot of Grace’s older lyrics written under her birth name, Tom Gabel, they came under renewed examination when a May 2012 Rolling Stone profile of Gabel disclosed that the songwriter had secretly been managing lifelong gender dysphoria and would begin living life as a woman.
Before that narrative began dominating the conversation, that term — “punk rock trailblazer” — might have been a slight oversell of the Gainesville, Fla. band. Indeed, they built a loyal following by playing rock that was profoundly autobiographical, if also cynical of both people and institutions. For an early twentysomething wading into life, the crux of Against Me!’s polemic message would be easy to identify with; there’s as much out there to love as there is to distrust. They never got over the hump, though, and record label indifference thwarted what could have been a sublime marriage of raw punk energy and a sound that was becoming bigger than the mid-sized rooms built to contain it.
With Tuesday’s release of Transgender Dysphoria Blues, the band’s sixth album and first since 2010’s White Crosses, Against Me!, or more specifically Grace as the band’s chief creative figure, has delivered a catalyst for a broadened understanding of LGBTQ issues. She’s certainly the highest profile musician since Wendy Carlos to make the transformation, and the album is a vigorous manifesto on the struggle for acceptance, not necessarily of one community by another, but of oneself, delivered via scream therapy with Springsteen-level swagger and ascendant guitars hooks. The back story of the album’s difficult path to realization — one longtime band member left and hasn’t spoken to Grace since her coming out, and it was recorded in rather inhospitable and unnerving conditions at a southern Georgia studio — is clearly secondary to Grace’s gender reconciliation, but it also frames it as a work of undiluted triumph and an album that is currently without peer in the pop world.
While it’s unlikely that the large majority of the Cradle audience on Tuesday could specifically identify with Grace’s struggles, there was a physical appreciation of the brutal internal purge that takes place on the new songs. Bodies were flying over the barrier in front of the stage minutes into show opener “FUCKMYLIFE666” — a new song that precisely reflects the wayward adolescent energy its title suggests — and male fans shouted, “I love you, Laura!” — declarations that would likely have not occurred before the conversion. The album’s online stream had only been up for a few days, but fists went up on cue to the towering accents of “Unconditional Love.” Sing-alongs suggested intimate knowledge of “Black Me Out,” a record label kiss-off with a riff that sounds like a fleeting nod to Chuck Berry, and Grace’s quasi-operatic ornamentation on the anthemic call-out to “True Trans Soul Rebel” was nearly drowned out by 300 or so in harmonic accompaniment.
“Who’s going to take you home tonight?” the song goes. It’s not as much a literal question as an existential one, and one of the few choruses that longtime guitarist James Bowman and new bassist Inge Johansson let Grace handle herself.
Grace’s stage deportment was not so dramatically different from the last time Against Me! took the stage at Cat’s Cradle precisely three years earlier, but there are vulnerabilities that revealed themselves alongside Against Me!’s aggression. Grace periodically peeked up from hacking away at her strings during bridges to reveal a shy smile, possibly reflecting caution engendered by her fans’ recent trend of hijacking the stage for old songs. The New York Times suggested this might have been a macho response to the new gender order, but that wasn’t an issue on Tuesday.
Intermixed with the rougher older material, the arena-sized new material particularly stood out. Ex-Rocket from the Crypt drummer Atom Willard seems especially suited to handle the propulsive abandon of the album’s title track, veiling Grace’s stream self-examining slurs in a cloud of toms. He was especially ferocious on “The Ocean,” the 2007 song that has retrospectively been singled out as the moment Grace came out to unwitting fans and journalists: “If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman/ My mother once told me she would have named me Laura.”
It’s not difficult to appreciate these songs apart from the issues that surround them. They’re polished and forthright, but agitated in typical Against Me! fashion, and are an exceptional complement to the scruffy old catalog. It’s also reasonable to say that there’s never been more confusion regarding LGBTQ politics, particularly that of trans persons.
Katie Couric’s recent, incredibly awkward interviews with model Carmen Carrera and actress Laverne Cox have provided templates for what not to ask a transgender person. Grantland was accused of provoking the suicide of a trans con artist last year by outing her through their reporting. Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues provides a lens for better understanding those issues for outside communities, and a soundtrack for self-affirmation for those within. !