In this series of reviews, I’ve often liked an album and bluntly stated to everyone out there that they should go buy it. This isn’t one of those albums, even though I enjoyed it a lot. If punk is not your cup of tea musically or if you’re going to struggle with the subject of transgender life, you’re probably not going to like this album. I enjoyed it a lot, but I won’t be handing it out for Christmas gifts the way I did A Charlie Brown Christmas one year.
The lead singer of Against Me! is Laura Jane Grace, though she used to be Tom Gabel until she began the medical journey necessary to become a woman. Tom Gabel and Against Me! were already a successful punk band – I was confused when I heard tracks off this album, because the only album I knew from this album was The Original Cowboy, from when the lead singer sounded more male.
This music is not for everyone, but if you give it a try, there’s a decent chance you’ll find yourself sing-shouting “They just see a faggot” or crooning “You don’t worry about tomorrow anymore/Because you’re dead”. That’s one of the funny things about punk or hip-hop music – they lead middle-aged, balding, middle-class chubby guys to forget all that for 3 or 4 minutes, and inhabit a completely different space.
The completely different space of Transgender Dysphoria Blues is not a “nice” place to visit, so don’t buy the album if you’re not willing to listen to tales of death-focus, gender-struggle, anger and suicide. I’d be hard-pressed to say why I enjoy the album so much – is it morbid curiosity, empathy, or vague remembrance of the darker thoughts of teenaged years? While shifting from male to female is not something universal, being pissed off at the world to the extent of “I want to piss on the walls of your house” expressed an emotion even this “gone mild” personality can recall.
For me, the most upsetting song is “Two Coffins” – also the prettiest acoustic number on the album. In it, Laura Jane Grace tenderly sings of her little daughter, and how they will both eventually die: “In the dark of our graves/ our bodies will decay/ I wish you’d never change.” Damn! I certainly know the bittersweet feeling of watching my children grow and wishing they could stay young and sheltered longer, but this song takes that universal parental emotion to a much creepier place. I wish the joyous lyric “How lucky I ever was to see/The way that you smiled at me/Your little moon face shining bright at me” weren’t immediately followed by “One day soon there’ll be nothing left of you and me”. This is unsparing music, to say the least.
And that has always been part of the weird attraction of punk rock for me. It smacks you upside the head with your own boundaries of what can be said. That’s a shared trait with good hip-hop, but whereas hip-hop tends to shock you with violence and misogyny, punk tackles politics, death, existence and, in this particular album, gender.
Sometimes the attitude is downright perversely funny. There’s something kind of funny about “Drinking with the Jocks”, even though the song is about alienation. “Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ” is dark, dark humor with its in-your-face shock value.
Yikes, I’m at 550+ words, and I haven’t really talked about the sound, which I love. My recollection of punk is that the musicianship tended to be more energetic than competent, but Against Me! is a tight band with a catchy sound. I mentioned the prettiness of “Two Coffins” – you could rewrite that song with gentle lyrics and have an acoustic alt-country hit. Other songs feature drums that are exuberant, and some really enjoyable guitar work. This may be the best sounding punk album that I’ve ever listened to. Faint praise, indeed, but the music on this album ranks up there as really good rock music. I’m looking forward to seeing them live later this summer.
Next up: Vari-Colored Songs: Tribute to Langston Hughes, by Leyla McCalla