The title suggested that Against Me!’s sixth studio album, and first since lead singer Laura Jane Grace’s gender transition, was going to be an open and honest reflection of her experiences. True to form Transgender Dysphoria Blues delivers a brave, relentless and destructive masterpiece.
The militant drum roll thrashed out by new member Atom Willard on the opening title track exposes that this record is something of a war both internally and externally, setting an unyielding tone that never lets up. Thrashing guitars and Grace’s trademark yelp soon crash in with a pulsating melody and a battle-cry of “you want them to see you like they see every other girl, they just see a faggot” erasing any questions of whether the issues addressed would be hidden behind metaphors and allegories. Indeed, the forthright nature of the lyrics is a real strong point to the record throughout. Follow up “True Trans Soul Rebel” and “Drinking with the Jocks” are as blatant as they could possibly be, driving home a point of the need to view transgender openly and unstigmatized.
Despite this resilience however, Transgender Dysphoria Blues offers no sugar coating or attempt to hide the struggles and self-loathing represented. “Unconditional Love” is a rousing folk rock anthem that best illustrates the universal feelings of isolation and self-doubt that makes this such an accessible record. Transgender Dysphoria Blues is very much in the mould of Against Me!’s work since 2007’s New Wave, in that it predominantly offers hard rock anthems littered with aggression. Grace’s voice, however, is just as raw as when AM! first burst on to the punk scene—a powerful weapon perhaps rediscovered through the band self-producing the record.
Thematically “Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ” is as politically divisive as always, offering a menacing guitar lick that looms into the album’s heaviest track, serving as a powerfully reaffirming mid-point. After the ferocity of Side A, the flipside of the record sees the Replacements-esque melodies really take flight. “FuckMyLife666” soars into an almost tender chorus, whilst “Dead Friend” offers a sorrowful reflection of bereavement that climaxes with the achingly transparent line “God damn I miss my dead friend,” a sentiment echoed on the bittersweet acoustic track “Two Coffins.”
Album closer “Black Me Out” has been a staple of the Against Me! live show for a few years now, and as such feels somewhat detached from the rest of the album. This is a characteristic that serves to frame the song as something individual and liberated, making it a perfect album closer. Its direct power-chords and thunderous drumming create a dramatic backdrop for what is probably Laura Jane Grace’s best performance vocally. In short: it’s fucking gigantic.
Against Me!’s early work saw them emerge as (black)flagship defenders of punk ideology—a notion as fickle and irrelevant as the critics who saw their switch to a major label as heresy. Such idealism is of course ridiculous and bitterly spawned within a .com era of message boards and comment sections, creating a dogma that really has no place in music. It seems clear to me that on Transgender Dysphoria Blues Laura Jane Grace is not trying to create a transgender icon, but merely a human being, going through issues that you might not experience yourself, but are by no means a million miles away from other shit you might be going through.
The truth is that so many complained when Against Me! sought to expand the punk shackles on their last couple of records, and now Transgender Dysphoria Blues has attracted wider attention. Still, the punk community is keen to drag them back. But if this record proves anything, it’s that AM! belong to the world now. To me they’ve always been an important band conveying important messages and with this album, they have taken everything to a whole new level. It really is that good. This may well seem like an exaggeration, but tell that to the kid listening who’s unhappy with their gender or sexuality, unhappy with the way the world works, or quite simply, just loves great songs. This album will indeed change lives.