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Against Me!
Transgender Dysphoria Blues Robin Smith , January 24th, 2014 09:48

When a pop-punk song is as good as 'Black Me Out', the final track on Against Me's sixth studio album Transgender Dysphoria Blues, it turns fantasy to life. Its components become satisfactions: the spiky, masterfully revealed guitar riff and marching drumbeat take the song's desires – Laura Jane Grace's protestation that she will never "talk that away again", or "know people like that anymore" – and fulfil them. Beyond anything else the song can do, like inspire a generation of songwriters, or bookend a masterpiece, or make an important statement, that is the songwriting dream. For a moment, I believe everything 'Black Me Out' has promised will happen.

'Blues is full of those believer moments. It's devised so that you'll bang your head and throw your hair, chant "one more time!" with it, clap your hands – but in reality, it's actually quite a private experience. Somehow it makes for a great headphones record, the rhythm section best when it's buried deep in your ears, where the boots sound stomps and the strings bend like knives twisting. It's personally maximalist, best suited to venue-sized speakers either side of your head. It's sharable and accessible, yes, but committed to self-discovery, too. As these songs sit under the microscope of the media, ready to be implied in things broader than themselves, they instead toast to the worth of one person. This is one of the very few mainstream records written about trans* issues ever, and it feels important, but it's also about Laura Jane Grace's own struggle.

Despite its pop-punk vibe and studio coating, Transgender Dysphoria Blues most closely resembles Reinventing Axl Rose, the first and most fiery LP in Against Me!'s discography. Aesthetically, they don't match up; the lo-fi Axl Rose came a year after the band put out the Crime As Forgiven By Against Me! EP on Plan-It-X Records, a banner label for straight-and-narrow folk punk that doesn't give itself a second glance. Against Me! soon left the label behind, but their sound only got sparser: the band carried songs from 'Crime over to 'Axl Rose, adding fuel to their veracity – they sped them up, first, and then pissed over them with a fully-formed set of politics. From acoustic guitars and a tinny, primitive drum kit we come to this, a record of acrobatic pop tricks, propulsive rhythms and synth-supplemented punk rock. Musically, the records sound nothing like each other, but they're more related than 'Blues is to the Springsteen sparkle of White Crosses. At the two ends of the band's discography stand these triumphant, unstoppable records, both conflating political battles with the personal experiences that catalyse them.

Same flames, different fuel. Reinventing Axl Rose is full of celebratory pints and stiff drinks, showing off the jubilance of a boozing community alongside the tragedy of defeat. That it ends on the lonely '8 Full Hours Of Sleep' – just Grace with her guitar, the world unconscious behind her – is telling. The infrastructure wins, the anarchists lose, the people fall. The irony of 'Axl Rose is that it sounds so good when it hurts so bad. As Dan Caffrey noted on Consequence of Sound, many young punks grew up without paying attention to the content of the record, let alone believing in it. Case in point: it makes for one of punk rock's greatest drinking records, but has one of the most devastating songs ever written about alcoholism as its introduction. Blues shares in that sense of contradiction, with a different personal story – it can reach outwards and inspire the oppressed, but Grace's lyrics are about feeling disconnected from the world and the realisation that it will never make her happy. If they have a lesson to teach, it's that the answers come from yourself.

Transgender Dysphoria Blues has a unique theme for mainstream punk rock – Grace's gender transition – and plays it out faster than you can blink. The second shortest record in Against Me!'s discography after the similarly amplified As The Eternal Cowboy, it rips through its songs so fast its listener has to hold on to them. They exist for any outsider, from the oppressed transgender community to the bullied high school kids, the socially awkward giving it their best as well as the depressed hiding under their sheets. What makes them special, though, is that they're stories that double-back, just as they did on 'Axl Rose. The melodies swing upwards even as the forces that be turn their back. One reason 'Blues feels so different from White Crosses is that it exchanges the epic, near-theatrical earnestness for a flash of irony. The tension on 'True Soul Trans Rebel' is between its bouncy rhythm and Grace's identity crisis, told plainly – "making yourself up as you go along / who's gonna take you home / does god bless your transsexual heart?".

The record begins with a roaring, chord-chugging commentary on the inaccessibility of Grace's dreams – "You want them to see you like they see every other girl / they just see a faggot" – one that only lets up when Atom Willard lets his exhausted band chill for an extended drum solo. The onslaught stops for a moment because it must, but the song's sentiment remains. "They just see a faggot" is striking missive, absorbed into one's common memory like all abuse is, and turned into a defence. It follows Blues' lead character as she deals with rejection and acceptance like they're the same thing.

Transgender Dysphoria Blues protagonist strives for equality and achieves self-love instead. 'Unconditional Love' is a riotous anthem about how those two ideals mingle with one another, complete with all the tricks that bring a band and its audience together: a ferocious chorus, a bridge focused on rocking the crunchiest handclap possible, and a gang chant of "hey!" to join in with. It sounds pretty Titus Andronicus on paper, but Grace's lyrics chew up the no-frills tradition and spit it out, done relying on others as a means of coping: "even if your love was unconditional / it still wouldn't be enough to save me". Her clean vocal snarl is more potent than any of the communal tricks offered up around her; despite its affections, it acts as a song to self.

'Unconditional Love' leads straight into the record's quickest and noisiest track, 'Drinking With The Jocks', a character-acted tale of unwanted machismo with all the censorship of the record's name-calling title track (so, no – "look at all the pussy", Grace screams back at the dudes). It plays with the same subversion as 'Unconditional Love', but calibrates it at a higher intensity, Grace hurling that final "life!" like it's the downfall of a hardcore song.

Against Me!'s discography has suffered less conflict than its most idealistic fans would like you to believe. Two lines should stick out to anyone – "Baby, I'm an anarchist / you're a spineless liberal" versus the tired revision of that thought, "I was a teenage anarchist / the revolution was a lie!" – but they exist without contradicting each other, both proven by the command Grace gives them. Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a lot of different things – a landmark record, a singer-songwriter story, a punk opera – adopted into a sound so powerful that you forget all that while listening to it. After the assimilation of the band into the mainstream rock pool with New Wave and White Crosses, their decision to make a stellar pop-punk record, judged on the quality of its hooks, is a great linear move. 'Blues is a palette cleanser that still causes a ruckus; the chord sequence and echoed vocals in 'Dead Friends' can become the most exciting talking points of it, if you choose. It's hard to begrudge a listener for what they take out of Transgender Dysphoria Blues, be it the songs, as tight as they are furious, or maybe just the hope it can inspire other musicians to make a record that lives for itself, rather than the world.