It all starts with a bang.
Well, technically speaking, Shape Shift With Me, Against Me!’s seventh studio album starts with a radio transmission in Japanese. But it’s a loud one, and one that quickly fades to make way for “ProVision L-3,” a ripping track that goes straight for the jugular. The lyrics are just as brutal, rallying against the titular security scanners, although when Laura Jane Grace shouts “What can you see inside of me?” it’s easy to get lost in thoughts of just how much of this song is political and how much of it is personal. Historically speaking, Against Me! have always been good at starting their albums off on a strong note (even the oft-maligned White Crosses had its title track at the forefront), but this is Against Me! at their most ferocious.
When Against Me! first revealed Shape Shift With Me, Laura Jane Grace mentioned that her goal was to write a trans* love album. “Tons of people have written about love. But while love is cliché, it’s infinitely relevant” she said, further clarifying that while there need to be more albums about trans* rights, she also believes that there also need to be more romance albums from a trans* perspective to balance out the Exile on Main Streets and Exile in Guyvilles. And with everything that’s happened in Grace’s life in the past four years (to name a few: coming out as a trans-woman via Rolling Stone, her marriage dissolving, losing half of her band, becoming a spokesperson and hero for the LGBTQ community (punk or otherwise), reinventing the band with a new lineup, starting an Emmy-nominated web-series with AOL, and writing a memoir), she had plenty of sources to write such an album. (It’s also no surprise to hear that she said Shape Shift With Me was the easiest album of her career to write).
Other than the aforementioned viciousness of opener “ProVision L-3,” a lot of the album falls back on the typical Against Me! sound that they’ve been heading toward since Searching for a Former Clarity. This isn’t a bad thing, per se- singles “Crash” and “333” are instantly familiar to anyone and after only a handful of listens they’ll be embedded in your brain. “Haunted Haunted Haunts” is an updated country(ish) romp that the band was once known for, and “Norse Truth” is possibly their wordiest and rant-iest song since “Turn Those Clapping Hands Into Angry Balled Fists.” Grace’s vocal performance on “Suicide Bomber” is the most raw she’s been in over a decade, and it’s only highlighted by having her growl alongside Cœur de pirate’s decidedly less harsh vocals for nearly the entire song. Also welcome here is the addition of bassist Inge Johansson, making his studio debut with the band. Transgender Dysphoria Blues had a lot going in its favor, but one thing that it sorely lacked was distinct bass lines outside of the two tracks that Fat Mike laid down, and Johansson’s contributions add a full sound to the band once again.
Grace’s lyrics have always been a strong selling point when it comes to Against Me!, and Shape Shift With Me delivers. As mentioned, there’s the political-but-maybe-also-not-really “ProVision L-3” that kicks off the record, and the incredibly personal “Delicate, Petite, & Other Things I’ll Never Be,” but there are plenty of other one-liners that hit home for anyone who has ever loved, from varying points of view. There are the songs from the perspective of being used by others (“I’m not a crash landing- let me stay up in your orbit awhile” from “Crash”), ones about wanting to use someone else (“I want to grab you by the skull, Rebecca, kiss me, but let’s not fall in love” from “Rebecca”), and plenty of co-dependencies (just to highlight two examples: “I once was drunk on you, very stoned, fully compelled” from “Haunting Haunted Haunts” and “I’m clinging tight to your chest, explode me like a suicide bomber” from “Suicide Bomber.”) The album’s real centerpiece is less in the center and more toward the back-end, “Norse Truth.” Co-written by Rocky Votolato, the song describes the end of an ugly relationship and it’s better if you just listen to it rather than read about it.
If it all sounds messy and unhealthy, it is. But maybe it’s because love, regardless of gender identity, can be very messy and unhealthy.
Does Shape Shift With Me succeed as a response to any of the cis-romance albums that Grace mentioned (or any of the millions of albums that she didn’t mention, for that matter)? As a cis-dude, I’m not qualified to answer that. But as a fan of punk music who has experienced a number of complex emotions in relationships, both romantic and platonic, I can say that Shape Shift With Me is certainly a great album.
4.5 / 5
RIYL: The Clash, Dillinger Four, The Replacements