Discovering A Former Clarity: A Fresh Perspective on Against Me!’s ‘Searching for a Former Clarity’

Sunday, September 6, 2015 marked the 10 year anniversary of Against Me!’s third full length album, Searching for a Former Clarity. We here at Dying Scene thought that was a good enough excuse as any to have some of our editors talk about the album and what it means to them.

For our fourth installment, we have Dying Scene editor/reviewer Supermartinguy, who admittedly never really listened to Searching for a Former Clarity until recently, discussing how it affected him as a new listener, ten years after its recording. You can read his thoughts below.

I only discovered Against Me! a year and a half ago, when my buddy and I were sitting in my room, drinking beers and randomly flipping through music videos. At this point in my life, I had just become completely infatuated with folk-punk, and I was listening to Ramshackle Glory’s Live The Dream on a daily basis. After hearing me go on about Pat The Bunny for the tenth time, this friend told me about a group called Against Me! He described the band’s lead singer as someone who once identified as an anarchist, but had become jaded with the movement; then he showed me the outstanding video for “I Was A Teenage Anarchist”. After that, White Crosses became my new album of choice.

A couple months later, Against Me! came up again in conversation. I’d heard the opening of “True Trans Soul Rebel”, and felt reasonably indifferent towards it, until another friend explained the full story behind the album, how the band’s lead singer had recently came out as transgender, and now went by the name of Laura Jane Grace. I immediately re-listened to the album, and suddenly appreciated it on a much more profound level.

I mentioned these two anecdotes, because I’ve always felt two steps behind Against Me! I’ve appreciated their songs on a individual level, but I’ve never really taken a step back to look at their body of work, and how it represents an incredible personal journey. So, to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of Searching for a Former Clarity, I decided to listen to the full album for the first time and, by using some of the context provided by Grace’s recent interview on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, try to understand how the album stands as a time capsule of the band’s career.

What’s most striking about the album, is the dramatic difference between its form, and its themes. That is to say, on a sheer instrumental level, the album is just brimming with confidence and mastery, yet the lyrics convey such a deep sense of lonely confusion. Take a track like “Miami”; there’s just an indescribable sense of swagger that the funky baseline brings in, then the energy of the whole piece is kicked up by the perfect introduction of those ska-like trumpets. All these tracks also feel incredible clean and polished, especially compared to Against Me!’s earliest low-fidelity albums; however, this doesn’t make the album feel at all artificial. “Justin”, for example: the long, dreamy guitar riffs simply wouldn’t work unless you were working with good-quality equipment. I mention this, purely because I think it speaks to how much mastery they gained over their instruments, back when they had nothing but an acoustic guitar and a bucket drum.

Yet, as all these musical abilities are put on display, Laura shows absolutely no pride, or sense of victory over this stage of her career, but instead seems to fixate upon all the ways things could go wrong. It’s funny to think of where the group came from, playing free shows for their like-minded anarchists in the local community center. While there are still traces of the youthful rebellion, this album is laden with new fears that, ironically enough, only age and success can bring. Take, for example, “Miami”, where the anarchist impulses are still strong, but are also inter-played with an immense feeling of loneliness. Sure, “From Her Lips To Gods Ears (The Energizer)” marks its clear political overtones, but then you take a track like “Violence”, and suddenly a terror develops on a much more instinctive level, one that emerges from a need to protect, not only yourself, but also your family.

Probably the most important theme of the album is time, and whether or not people can change. It’s interesting how this album projected the band to considerable mainstream success; one of the things Laura mentioned during the WTF podcast, was the way a lot of the band’s older fans turned against them once they signed onto Fat Wreck Records. This anxiety is something that really works its way to the forefront, as the album progresses. Sure, “Unprotected Sex With Multiple Partners” is a clear condemnation of the record industry, but the later tracks express far more uncertainty. “How Low” seems to reassure the listener that these people are still the same fuck-ups as ever, but then “Holy Shit!” and “Don’t Lose Touch” pronounce a fear of being seen as a fraud, that maybe they can’t be the people their listeners expect them to be or, even worse, maybe they never were.

More than anything else, the album presents a clear sense of someone who’s just so incredibly uncomfortable within their own skin. I know that seems like somewhat of a cliche considering Laura’s recent transition, but I almost feel like it’s worth reiterating, purely to emphasize the courage that comes with this kind of honesty. When I listen to her sing about the young kid trying on woman’s clothes in the final, titular track, I’m not sure if she’s drawing from a childhood friendship, or if she’s talking about herself.
Ultimately, what really makes this album so phenomenal is the profound honesty. For a band to progress from basement shows, to Billboard hits, you’d expect some of the intimacy to be lost. Throughout this album, however, it feels like the talent of the band has far excelled what they were ready for, as if, in spite of all the hard work they’ve put into achieving success, they weren’t ready for so many eyes and ears to be turned towards them. Yet, in spite of any uncertainties, Laura defiantly offers such a raw and unfiltered look into her anxieties towards both herself, and Against Me! itself.

Listening to the album now, I can’t help but stop and think about where I’m heading, about the things life will throw at me in the coming years, both good and bad. Most importantly, it makes me hope against hope that I’ll be able to hold onto my convictions. If I could handle the future with even a fraction of bravery that Laura showed when facing hers, I think I’ll turn out okay.

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