by Erik van Rheenen
Laura Jane Grace came out as a transgender woman a pair of summers ago in a watershed interview with Rolling Stone, having grappled with gender dysphoria throughout her entire life. The first record Against Me! released since Grace courageously shared her coming out story, my first few listens to Transgender Dysphoria Blues also reminded me of a different interview — one where Grace conversed with Grantland about drunkenly confessing her gender dysphoria to The Lawrence Arms’ Brendan Kelly two years before her Rolling Stone interview went to print. “Blackout drunk, I confessed to him,” Grace states in the interview. “I told him everything I was going through, and that I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
And that’s just the kind of record Transgender Dysphoria Blues is — wholly unapologetic, unabashedly honest, and incredibly poignant. Like the sharply pointed political statements of Against Me! albums past, Blues is downright blunt in its statements, relentless in its refusal to tiptoe around its subject matter. Starting with a signature rollicking Atom Willard drum beat (the recording of Blues marked an Against Me! lineup in flux), “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” kicks in listeners’ teeth a hot-blooded vocal turn from Grace that, well, it just fucking rocks. Grace sings lines like “You’ve got no cunt in your strut/You’ve got no hips to shake” with brutal, vocal cord-rending honesty. Though Grace frames Blues in terms of a concept record spinning the yarn of a transgender prostitute, it’s tough to listen to the title track and not think of Grace’s struggle for “them to see you like any other girl,” and Grace’s imagery of a ragged summer dress and a rocky coastline cut as deeply as the jagged guitar riff from Against Me! mainstay James Bowman.
Blues rarely lets off the gas pedal during its half-hour sprint, and when the record does decide to take a few breaths, those more reflective tracks mark some of the most emotionally cuts in the Against Me! discography. The clarity of Grace’s harrowing lyrics, waxing on her fear of loss, on the acoustic “Two Coffins” sent me reeling and reaching to my pocket for a tissue, and it’s hard to shake the heartache when Against Me! tackles self-doubt and discovery (“FUCKMYLIFE666”) through a pop-punk lens that falls pretty closely to the more hook-heavy end of the spectrum, and a reflection on losing a friend (“Dead Friend”) played with a power-pop touch.