By Blake Baxter
The year 2013, like any year, was full of different sounds from the world of the music. Some were familiar, some weird, some generic, and some were surprising. There were great albums in a plethora of genres and subgenres, ranging from categories as diverse as radio-friendly pop to disco-tinged electronica to industrial hip hop. To my mind, though, as enjoyable as it was, there was a glaring lack of punk rock/pop punk/emo, or what I like to call: the soundtrack to my adolescence/ the type of music that I joyously screamed in my fraternity basement at 4 A.M. throughout my college years. At least a decade has passed (who actually knows the exact time?) since the height of pop punk’s mainstream relevance, but that hasn’t stopped the bands of that day, (Blink-182, Yellowcard, Jimmy Eat World, etc.) from cranking out fun albums, nor has it discouraged a younger generation of bands from emulating them (The Wonder Years, A Day to Remember, and even Say Anything could be considered among them). And yet, last year yielded disappointingly few exciting punk releases.
Thankfully, though, 2013 is in the past. With upcoming albums by Bayside, The Used and Say Anything(!) on the horizon in the next few months, 2014 looks to be a comeback year for the indefinable genre Max Bemis and Co. so zealously defended seven years ago. However, some anarchy-obsessed punk rock veterans recently significantly elevated expectations for these upcoming releases. Surprisingly, Against Me!’s first album in four years – a span in which the band underwent major changes – Transgender Dysphoria Blues is the band’s most complete of its career, and sets a high bar for punk rock excellence in 2014.
Punk rock is messy by nature (among other things). There are many shades; both the sounds and the subgenres bleed into each other. Early Against Me! sounds like the kind of music that you’d hear at a bar, but a specific kind of bar. The grubby, grimy sort, where blue collar workers and drunkards alike slam shots and stomp their feet to drinking songs into the wee hours of the morning. In that regard, they fit in somewhere between Dropkick Murphys and The Hold Steady. The themes of youthful rebellion and angst are prevalent. In 2007 and 2010, with the release of their first two major label albums, New Wave and White Crosses, the band strayed away from their hard edge and transitioned towards something closer to a mainstream arena rock sound (see the Foo Fighters-ish “Spanish Moss”). The songs themselves were still as politically charged as ever; however the chaos and anarchy of their early material were coated with a layer of nostalgia. (There’s a bigger difference than one might think between “Baby, I’m an Anarchist” and “I Was a Teenage Anarchist”.) To the eyes and ears of some punkheads (who still live in 1996, mind you), this was clearly “selling out”. On one hand, how quaint, but on the other, they had a point; some songs did lack the spark and soul of their earlier records. Transgender Dysphoria Blues, however, is something else entirely.
Against Me! was founded as a solo act in 1997 by troubled youngster, Tom Gabel, already dabbling in drugs and anarchy by junior high. It was only a matter of time before the budding musician had dropped out of school, had a handful of run-ins with the law and developed a full-blown drug addiction. However, the young rebel also managed to join forces with a handful of other musicians, including high school friend and guitarist James Bowman and created a buzz in some punk rock circles. With the addition of bassist Dustin Fridkin and drummer Warren Oates, Against Me! went from a small project to a full-fledged band. (Fridkin exited following the release of the band’s first full-length album Reinventing Axl Rose, and was replaced by Andrew Seward. The band was composed of Gable, Bowman, Seward and Oates from 2002 through 2009.) In 2000, before Against Me! took off, Gable, the voice, vision and driving force of the band married a woman, but was divorced four years later. In 2007, the year that New Wave was released, the singer was married again, this time to artist Heather Hannoura. The couple would go on to have a baby girl together, but unbeknownst to everyone else, it was not enough to silence the demons or suppress the self-resent that the self-destructive punk rocker had harbored since youth.
In 2012, to the surprise of Against Me! fans, the greater music community and the band itself, Against Me!’s singer came out as a transgender. In an exclusive Rolling Stone interview, the person born as Tom Gabel announced to the world that Tom Gabel would henceforth be known as Laura Jane Grace, and that she’d begin something of a transition phase into womanhood. Grace had been battling gender dysphoria from an early age, had secretly cross-dressed intermittently throughout her life and eventually found it to be too much. Knowing all of this now, it’s easy to look back at Against Me!’s discography and find instances of Grace bemoaning struggles with identity. It can be tempting, if a little voyeuristic, to overanalyze each and every Against Me! lyric to find a gleam of gender dysphoria subtext. Now, some of these are painfully obvious in retrospect, like, HELLO, “If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman/My mother once told me she would have named me Laura,” but others are just general abstractions – “Stop! Take some time to think, figure out what’s important to you.” – and are best left alone.
Besides, why pore over the Against Me! discography – not that there’s anything wrong with that in itself – for indirect references to Grace’s past inner struggles when you can listen to her speak out about them in the open? As the title suggests, Transgender Dysphoria Blues directly tackles Grace’s autobiographical trials and tribulations with bracing and emphatic honesty. Although originally construed as a concept album about a transsexual rather than an autobiography, it’s now viewed in a far different light since Grace’s coming out. It’s a fascinating and rare example of an artist publicly baring their soul for the first time. Laura Jane Grace may not be the first transgender in the history of the world, but she is the most famous to do so in the world of punk rock, if not in all of music. It’s virtually unprecedented, but that’s only part of what makes it so remarkable.
In Transgender Dysphoria Blues, Grace impressively makes her ultra-personal, hyper specific lyrics feel universal. Only .3% of the United States is transgender, so it’s rather unlikely that you’ll directly connect to the ostensible subject matter, but the clear inner-themes of alienation, persecution, hopelessness, youthful angst and defiance will speak to the heart of any punk enthusiast. Just about everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, class, race, religion, political persuasion, etc., feels like they’re on the outside looking in at some point in their life. That is how Grace felt; both as a youth, getting picked on and called a faggot in high school, and as an adult, feeling like a woman on the male dominated punk scene. Worst of all, she feared she’d feel that way again once she came out to her wife. “Even if your love was unconditional/ It still wouldn’t be enough to save me” Grace laments in “Unconditional Love”. She pours every slight, every discrimination, every feeling of inadequacy and every wave of self-loathing into this album. The songs about Grace’s personal journey are a clear cut above the ones that are not; there are some places when Against Me! would be better off sticking to the album’s focal point.
However, beyond the lyrics and their meanings and the feelings they evoke, Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a sonically pleasing musical experience. The album is tight, wasting no time in its breezy 28:43 of running time. The result is an album that is good to great all the way through, with no room for filler. The vast majority of the songs are fast and furious bursts of energy (though there is one pretty but very melancholy ballad to her daughter, too). The arena feeling that alienated some listeners on their last couple go-arounds is still present but wisely dialed back. This could be due in part to the fact that this is the band’s first studio album of original material on their own record label, Total Treble Music. It could also be a result of the band’s personnel changes between records; Grace’s physical appearance wasn’t the only difference since 2010’s White Crosses. Longtime drummer Warren Oates left the band to pursue a career in the food industry. Bassist Andrew Seward also departed to spend more time with his family. These kinds of things happen sometimes when a band of spunky teenagers grows into one composed of aging rockers. They were replaced by journeyman bassist Inge Johansson and Atom Willard of Angels and Airwaves fame, respectively. At any rate, with their most recent album Against Me! has managed to strike a balance between the rah-rah anthemic feel of their recent albums and the harder edge of their earlier material. It seems that getting in touch with her feminine side has caused Grace to turn all of those clapping hands into angry balled fists once again.
Unsurprisingly, since its release, many have branded Transgender Dysphoria Blues as something of a novelty, which I don’t necessarily like but get to an extent; you don’t see this every day, or, ever, really. There’s an air of “hmm, it’s the first Against Me! album since its lead singer became a woman, that’s kind of intriguing,”. If curiosity was a crime, I would not be long for the world myself. That’s understandable. Still, don’t give in to this impulse and dismiss it. You’d be making a mistake. Open your mind and listen, because it’s a terrific punk album in a year that could (and hopefully will) produce many.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently covers the Carolina Panthers for Football.com, as well as the Chicago Bulls for Yahoo Sports, and previously covered college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future.