11:15 AM CST, February 10, 2014
'Transgender Dysphoria Blues'
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
On the way to making its sixth album, Florida punk band Against Me! scrapped a number of recordings, fired its rhythm section and lead singer Tom Gabel became Laura Jane Grace.
The tumultuous birth of "Transgender Dysphoria Blues" is reflected in music that returns the group to its rawest essence, with 10 songs flying past in 29 minutes and Grace taking over the production from the more finesse-oriented Butch Vig. The circle-the-wagons approach fits the subject matter, with Grace documenting her gender transformation with sometimes harrowing honesty.
In the title track for "Transgender Dysphoria Blues" (Total Treble), Grace howls over a galloping rhythm that suggests a punked up hootenanny. She's anxious, angry, crestfallen, all within the space of a few lines: "You want them to notice/The ragged ends of your summer dress/You want them to see you/Like they see any other girl," but all the boys see is the person she used to be, and she is judged harshly for it.
The list of albums that deal so directly with the pain of the transgender experience is a small one. But Grace takes the subject head on, her earnestness spilling over into anger, self-loathing, and ultimately a sense of hardened resolve. There are a few sideways steps into seemingly tangential subjects (a screed about jingoistic bloodlust that name-checks Osama Bin Laden). But when Grace sets her sights on the social politics of how we treat our fellow human beings, she's undeniable: the throat-tearing fury of "Drinking With the Jocks," the redemption-seeking "Unconditional Love," the insurrectionary spirit of "True Trans Soul Rebel."
The music – a volatile mix of crashing guitars, drums and pile-driving bass funneled into shout-from-the-balcony choruses – destroys any hint of self-pity. But as Grace searches for a world that would allow her the freedom to be herself, she finds solace in the album's most subdued moment, and it's beautiful and moving. "One day soon there'll be nothing left of you and me," she sings on "Two Coffins" in a voice that sounds finally at peace with itself.
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