“There’s a brave new world,” sings Laura Jane Grace (who used to be Tom Gabel), “that’s raging inside of me.” Grace leads Against Me!, an opinionated and aggravated punk-rock bunch out of Florida. Transgender Dysphoria Blues is either the band’s sixth album or its first, depending on how you look at it. It is Grace’s debut album as a woman, and it is a robust, punching piece of work. The rage is focused and affecting – the listener is a mobile home to Grace’s victory-tornado.
Blues are a matter of degrees: Your baby done gone, or you woke up this morning and your dog was dead, or, if you’re Howlin’ Wolf, you’re “lookin for me some money, pawned gun to have some gold.” In Grace’s case, the melancholia was relentless and deeply rooted. “It’s a feeling of detachment from your body and from yourself,” she told Rolling Stone in 2012, when it was revealed that Grace was a transitioning transgender person.
While there have been ambiguous hints and scattered admissions of the gender unease previously (“If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman,” from 2007’s Butch Vig-produced New Waves), the new Transgender Dysphoria Blues approaches it straight on. Cathartic? Yes, as you might expect. But the wrath and thunder remains. Add in vulnerability, and you have full-frontal Grace.
She wastes no time. The first line to the album-opening title track is “Your tells are so obvious, shoulders too broad for a girl.” (Grace is not the shawl-wearing type.) The song has a hustling crunch to it – a sort of roughed-up Modern English, with rat-a-tat drums up front. It’s about wanting to fit in as a woman, and the resulting hurt when it doesn’t happen at all (“They just see a faggot/ They hold their breath not to catch the sick”).
Where there is a freedom to this record, there is darkness as well. The desperation to Unconditional Love is alive, grave and universal, about romantic addictions, burned coffee and Percocets, and young suicides. The band (whose lineup went through an upheaval during the making of the record) raises hell like Trooper used to.
Full points for the Mussolini mention (“You’re going to hang like Benito from the Esso rafters”) on the rocked-up Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ.
Grace’s voice? It’s somewhere between Freddie Mercury and Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano, with a little Joan of Arc thrown in.
And Dear Friend is a strummed memorial, and a nice change of pace.
While there’s a sense of triumph, Grace isn’t holding a trophy and mugging for any cameras. The thumped, jangled Paralytic States suggests that the fight might not ever be over. “Standing naked in front of her hotel bathroom mirror, in her dysphoria’s reflection, she still saw her mother’s son.” Heavy blues, that.