“Is the culture now a product that’s disposable?” the always passionate, often philosophical leader of Against Me! asked on New Wave, the band’s brilliant 2007 major-label debut. “All the punks still singing the same song/Is there anyone thinking what I am?/Is there any other alternative?/Are you restless like me?"
The driven singer and songwriter—the now Chicago-based Laura Jane Grace—clearly was more restless back then than many fans knew. In 2012, the former Tom Gabel talked publicly for the first time about her gender dysphoria in an interview with Rolling Stone. The band’s first album since that admission arrives amid its leader’s dramatic and still-progressing personal evolution, and that has been the focus of most reviews.
“There's a brave new world that’s raging inside of me,” is the obligatory lyric to quote. To be fair, Grace does to some degree invite the obsession with her gender via the album’s title and cover art. And yes, some of the most striking songs are in part about her personal journey, starting with the one-two opening salvo of the title track (“You’ve got no c--- in your strut/You’ve got no hips to shake/And you know it’s obvious/But we can’t choose how we’re made”) and “True Trans Soul Rebel” (“You should've been a mother/You should've been a wife/You should have been gone from here years ago/You should be living a different life”).
But the broader themes on this rollicking set are the same that Grace and many great rockers before her always have explored, and they never get old: questioning authority; rejecting group-think; living life to the fullest, and most of all daring to be yourself, no matter how difficult that is in a world where it seems as if nobody else is remotely like you.
That, of course, never is true, and Transgender Dysphoria Blues ultimately is an album about building a community in opposition to the most distasteful elements of mainstream culture, including but certainly not limited to gender bias and homophobia. “Dead Friend” and “Two Coffins” are striking eulogies to the sadness of possibilities unrealized and lives lost way too soon, the first a rip-roaring rocker and the second a quiet acoustic ballad (and the only tune in that mode on the album). “Drinking With the Jocks” is a searingly angry indictment of bro/rape culture. And while no one—least of all that part of the band’s fan base that still lives for the Warped Tour—knows exactly what “Osama bin Laden as the Crucified Christ” is about, I hear an indictment of the bloodthirsty mentality that reduces civilized society to the same level as the barbarians when the lust for revenge taints the commitment to justice.
Heavy stuff for a pop-punk lyric, and the only rock song I can think of that references the savage end of Mussolini (“You’re gonna hang like Benito from the Esso rafters”). But Grace always has been an ambitious wordsmith; in fact, the knock long has been that the words overpower the music. I couldn’t disagree more, especially since the band beefed up its sound while working with Butch Vig on New Wave.
Despite the loss of its veteran rhythm section before the recording of album number six, and the return to the ranks of the indies after that stint on Sire, Against Me! retains its furious rhythms, massive wall of guitars, and insanely anthemic melodies, and all of those are more confident and more potent than ever. As much as Grace’s ferocious vocal roar, which is undiminished by the hormones, that heavy musical wallop combined with the intellectual challenges make this album an inspiration to us all, as well as a true alternative.
Against Me!, Transgender Dysphoria Blues (Total Treble Music)
Rating on the four-star scale: 4 stars