Searching For A Former Clarity was my first taste of Against Me!’s polemic, poetic, and melodic brand of punk and sent me caterwauling hungrily through the rest of their catalog. Reinventing Axl Rose, As the Eternal Cowboy, and yes, even New Wave were all unique and taste-shaping revelations. For me, and many others, Against Me! was the de facto millennial punk rock band; defining an era, coining a sound, but most of all forming the vitriolic soundtrack of an entire generation of punk rockers.
Then there was White Crosses.
There were those who loved it, those who hated it, and those who pretended to love it. But, more than any other controversy, this was the first schism. Now, in the moment, there were a thousand schisms; label changes, sonic tweaks, members coming and going– but in retrospect, these were scuffles. White Crosses was enough of a departure, that it might as well have been a different band. Where Reinventing Axl Rose revelled in raw screams, anarcho politics, and amphetamine folk, White Crosses was essentially a rock record. Modern rock, arena rock, alternative rock. Almost anything but punk rock. There were tastes of it here and there, “Rapid Decompression” representing the album at its most volatile, but gone were the rough edges. While I agree that White Crosses is an undeniable low point in their career, its better than most people give credit– its biggest mistake is being the first good record in a series of great ones.
The next four years were wrought with change. If having gone through a host of lineup permutations weren’t enough, Tom Gabel’s coming out as a transgender woman, and subsequent rename of Laura Jane Grace, were more than enough to make sure their next album would have more riding on it than any should. After recordings and re-recordings, release dates being pushed back, and even Fat Mike of all people coming in to record some last minute basslines, punk rock’s Chinese Democracy finally arrived.
Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a concept album that explores the experiences of Laura Jane Grace with her transgender dysphoria. But in a stark contrast to the scene’s own progressiver-than-thou back-slapping, Grace maintains an honest and cutting perspective on the ordeal. There’s nothing romantic here, nothing self-aggrandizing; for those who want a simple message of affirmation, this album doesn’t have it. The changes and self doubt are explored in depth, and her eye for imagery never shies away from the grotesque, almost as if she’s using her detractors own words against them. On “Paralytic States” she sings: “Cut her face wide open, shaved the bone down thin. Plumped her lips up exaggerated– a fucked up kind of feminine.” Transgender Dysphoria Blues is at its best when its dark and confessional, but there’s a difference between being confrontational and being blatant. The opening and title track, marches the line deftly, setting the stage with a batch of top notch lyrics and melody, along with scratchy guitar mutes. “True Trans Soul Rebel,” directly following it, falters with its lack of subtlety. “Does God bless your transsexual heart?” is a bull’s eye of an idea that is hit with a cruise missile of a lyric. In context with Grace’s other words, it sounds unnatural and sadly, a little ridiculous.
“Unconditional Love” is a song that I have mixed feelings about. While it has an interesting concept behind, the execution feels lackluster. It’s melody and galloping guitar sound like something out of Green Day’s middle period, and the chorus, while catchy, isn’t catchy in a good way. Its obnoxious and repetitive. But for everything “Unconditional Love” isn’t, “Drinking With The Jocks” is. Without a doubt, the rawest Against Me! has been since Reinventing Axl Rose, it is a predominantly screamed ode to Grace pretending to be one of the guys her whole life. The visceral language she uses throughout the track paints a picture of a lifetime of rage and disgust at the role she played for so long.
“Osama Bin Laden As the Crucified Christ” is another interesting song, although I’m still not sure if I could say whether I actually think its good or not yet. Either way, it represents an abrupt, yet interesting stylistic shift for Against Me! Drawing on 80’s cock rock, metal, and grunge, “Osama Bin Laden As the Crucified Christ” is a heavy, angry tune built around a hypnotic riff. But, in an odd and brilliant way, it also addresses Grace’s transgender dysphoria in more abstract terms. The song itself is about the reality of personal perception and the equalizer of inevitable death, making a much stronger case for Grace going forward in her treatment than any pamphlet could.
“Black Me Out” ends the album and is possibly the best song on it. Grace sings with stunning power and while this song is hardly new at this point, it gains new power in context. It’s deliciously defiant, a ‘fuck you’ to anyone that hasn’t gotten one yet. Throughout Transgender Dysphoria Blues Grace acknowledges the dissonance between how she feels and who she is, the fear of what she is and will go through, but she never backs down from her conviction. “Black Me Out” is a declaration of independence and reclamation of the self.
Since hearing it for the first time, I haven’t been able to fully realize my own opinion regarding Transgender Dysphoria Blues. I’ve been ping-ponging between meh and masterpiece for about a week now, never sure which paddle I’ll hit and where. The truth is, that what this album does right, it does amazingly. Transgender Dysphoria Blues’ triumphs are worth noting and admiring, in that respect, Against Me! have written an album that fully redeems their misstep with White Crosses. But, while the songwriting is mostly great, the moments when its not are glaring. The music is for the most part bland and unremarkable, to the point it almost feels like an afterthought. Where are those chords that cut like a knife? Where is that feeling of desperation? It can’t be communicated through words alone. While not as over-produced as its predecessor, there’s still a flatness to the sounds on Transgender Dysphoria Blues that drain its vitality.
Admittedly, that may not be anyone’s fault. Against Me!, the band who at every turn as matured and grown, may have finally outgrown me. Its not a bad thing, and it’s certainly not malicious. I’ll always want another Searching For A Former Clarity, but that happened in a time and place that has long since passed. I’ll always love Against Me!, but I think this might represent my own personal schism with the band: regrettably, they’ve become something that I’m simply not that interested in anymore. The songwriting will always be there, but that throat-shredding intensity and sloppy musicianship is a distant memory now. With White Crosses, I denied it, but with Transgender Dysphoria Blues, I’ll accept it: Against Me! has moved on. And that’s okay. Like an old lover, I’ll check in every once and awhile, but I know their affections aren’t for me anymore. There’s new people out there ready to discover the joys of Against Me!, people who’ll love their new sound and treat them better than the punk scene ever could have.
I’ve been blacked out, but maybe its for the best.