Jan 21, 2014

Music Review: "Transgender Dysphoria Blues" by Against Me!

By Ian Cory

There’s a songwriting method that I’ve seen discussed by people like Bruce Springsteen and Win Butler that for a lack of a proper term I’ll call telescoping. The basic premise of telescoping is writing lyrics that zoom in and out from the general to the specific and from the universal to the personal. The effect is essentially the same as any other dynamic shift in music, the two extremes work to enhance each other. The personal lines give weight and significance to the universal ones, and the broader subjects help carry the more specific details over to a larger audience. By placing personal details in a larger context, telescoping can transform lines that would normally alienate listeners with their specificity into moments that actually make songs more relatable. The two songwriters I mentioned have long been accepted into the populist rock hall of fame, but I’d like to nominate a new member to that canon: Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace.

Before we get any further down this road, I’d like to acknowledge that yeah, it is a bit presumptuous of me to say that I, as a cis dude, can relate to Grace’s struggles coming out as trans and a year spent dealing with depression. While the press and punk community has done a good job of accepting Grace, make no mistake, what she did was, and continues to be, incredibly brave and certainly out of my depth of truly understanding. While I will never claim to have walked in Grace’s shoes, what I can do is empathize, which brings us back to the subject of songwriting. One of the greatest strengths of songwriting, and most great art when you really get down to it, is its ability to instill empathy in a listener and to briefly alter their perspective on the world. And this is where Transgender Dysphoria Blues shines.

At its core Transgender Dysphoria Blues is an album about alienation, longing, and defiance. These themes are as ubiquitous in punk rock as distorted guitars. There’s always a risk when working with such broad concepts to get lost in them and emerge with faceless material that lacks a unique perspective. Against Me! never even gets close to having this problem. All of the universal statements on Transgender Dysphoria Blues are balanced by personal insights unlikely to come from anyone but Laura Jane Grace. Take “True Trans Soul Rebel” where the near cliché of “who’s gonna take you home” is immediately anchored by “will god bless your transsexual heart?” Some songs like “Drinking With The Jocks” or “Paralytic States” grapple with the struggle between wanting to be normal and accepted and the desire to be understood and loved for your true self. These are problems that nearly every outsider has had to deal with at some point but a line like “would you even recognize me?” pops a hell of a lot more in this context.

Grace has always leaned towards the blunt and unpoetic in her lyrics but never before has that tendency been more effectively implemented than on Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Nearly every song (with the exception of “Osama Bid Laden As The Crucified Christ” which is the album’s sole clunker) has a line that hits like a hammer to the kneecaps. It’s easy to give into the record’s endless stream of hooks and float into an adrenaline coma, but Grace never allows that luxury. While it is certainly effective as a well-crafted rock album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues’ power comes from more than just superlative songwriting. By refusing to compromise her perspective Grace has achieved something important. She stands as a visible figure in the public sphere from a group sorely lacking in media representation. It would be hyperbolic to suggest that this record will solve that problem by itself, but it isn’t hard to imagine that there are a lot of people out there who have waited for an album like this their whole life. And on the other side of the coin there’s another group listening to Transgender Dysphoria Blues whose minds are going to be blown sky high. For those unfamiliar with anything related to the transgender experience (this is a lot of people) this album could serve as a light bulb moment. Again, I don’t want to imply that a whole bunch of cisfolk will suddenly understand what it's like to be trans, but it could be a much needed reminder that feelings like depression, desire and righteous rage are not exclusive to just one privileged group. In a culture that overwhelmingly views transfolk as lesser than and irreparably “other,” this kind of normalization is not to be undervalued.

Before hitting play on this album I was worried that Against Me! would gradually be tokenized into being “that one punk band with a transgender singer” but upon reflection that was a very silly thing to worry about. Transgender Dysphoria Blues is one of the better rock records to come out in a long time. The band is incredibly focused, keeping the songs short and punchy not as a gimmick but out of pragmatism. It isn’t as raucous as Against Me!’s early work or as polished as their last two albums, but instead combines the savage energy of the former with the earworms of the later. The production has two settings; guitars and GUITARS, but neither ever overshadows Grace’s throaty roar. This album would be a gift from any band, but coming from an artist this far into their career and this consistently brave both as a musician and a human being, Transgender Dysphoria Blues is nothing short of revelatory.

Grade: A-

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