Against Me’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a bold (and brave) artistic statement, and from the infectious opening drum shuffle and guitars of the title track it’s quickly clear that it has the musical muscle to back up the gender politics. It’s quite extraordinary, combining what has become a jaded musical genre (US punk-pop) with a defiant political and philosophical stance, to produce something that is by turns aggressive, anthemic, melodic, and groundbreaking.
Against Me! have come up with an album that works not just on its own terms, but is unabashedly aiming to be popular as well, and in a decent world it will be.
The band’s lead singer and songwriter, Laura Jane Grace, is arguably the highest profile musician/celebrity to openly declare themselves Transgender. She used to be Tom Gabel, before announcing to the world – via Rolling Stone, back in 2012 – her lifetime gender dysphoria and intention to transition to a woman.
She was rightly lauded for her brave decision, but let’s be clear – standing up against a hostile world to defend your identity doesn’t automatically make for great art. This is an album, though, that doesn’t need any sympathy votes, and it works on several levels.
On the most simple level, it has some brilliant tunes, very much in the vein of Against Me!’s previous recordings but with what seems an added urgency and power. A good example is the lead single from the album – Fuckmylife666. Inspired in part by the death of lighting designer and good friend of the band John Paul Allison. It’s a carpe diem call to action with a radio-friendly riff to kick it off. It’s a song that you won’t get out of your head easily, and yet beside the radio-friendly format there’s plenty of non-conventional substance to it; even the title gives you a sense of how the band are fucking around with expectations, playing things on their own terms.
There’s plenty of energy and influence banging around on the ten songs presented. The band sound predominantly like themselves – despite the departure of bassist Andrew Seaward and drummer Jay Weinberg (son of Max Weinberg, Springsteen E-Street Band drummer) during the recording – thanks largely to Laura’s distinctive voice, but there are also glimpses of other artists shining through, from the almost samba-like drum intro to the title track, through to the Bowie like glam beat of Unconditional Love.
The album was initially touted as a concept album about a transgender prostitute – but it doesn’t really hang together as one narrative (a plus to my mind!); there are certainly songs that tell transgender stories – Paralytic States itself comes across as a full story in its own right (and one that musically takes the late great Lou Reed and shakes him up with Green Day) – but it seems that the concept was more a distancing tactic from Laura before she threw herself wholeheartedly into her new life (and the new album).
The standouts have to be Transgender Sysphoria Blues itself and True Trans Rebel. Perhaps not surprisingly, given that this band’s debut album was called re-inventing Axl Rose, these two tracks stand out as real game changers. They are strong enough musically to be hugely popular – and imagine the political implications of that – and yet tick all the boxes of a sound that has long since been co-opted by the dumb-jock fraternity. Imagine a festival crowd dancing uncontrollably and singing, almmost without realising it:
You want them to notice
The ragged ends of your summer dress
You want them to see you
Like they see any other girl
They just see a faggot
They hold their breath not to catch the sick
Rough surf on the coast,
Wish I could have spent the
Whole day alone with you
And here’s the crux of why the album is so good -the band could have chosen to play down either Laura’s story or the songs, and no-one would have blamed them.There’s a dual bigotry at play: on the one hand there’s obviously a society-wide distance and inability to understand transgender people, but on an artistic level there’s also a widespread snobbism that suggests that power-chords and catchy riffs can’t carry any emotions more complex than the desire to get drunk and/or laid. Against Me! have come up with an album that works not just on its own terms, but is unabashedly aiming to be popular as well, and in a decent world it will be.