Transgender Dysphoria Blues is both a return to form and the record Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace needed to make. It’s the first release for Gainesville’s former folk punks since she publicly came out as transgender. Jumping into the mainstream with their last two records, Against Me!’s fanbase became increasingly weary of following them into the spotlight. Now ditching the major label and with reinvigorated songwriting, this is the record that will win the diehards back.
“We can’t control the medium / We can’t control the context / The presentation” opened New Wave, their 2007 debut on Warner-owned Sire Records, which got the band to no. 11 on the Billboard rock charts. It felt like a betrayal. The revolution was over, and they had chosen fame and fortune over dumpster diving and throwing bricks through Starbucks windows. Being an Against Me! Fan was losing its meaning.
The record’s second single, “Stop,” was a pro-and-cons list of signing with a major label, and the love song with Tegan Quin just seemed like hollow pandering to indie pop fans. It was just too damn pretty for those who fell for this band over its outcast anthems, the ones who were screaming along to lines like “We rock, because it’s us against them / We found our own reasons to sing.”
With New Wave we were left with Laura, then known as Tom Gabel, lamenting a new dilemma none of us could relate to. “It could be me on the T.V. In your living room / It could be me jet-setting with my band across the world,” reeked of hypocrisy for a band whose first LP defiantly demanded a band “That would travel one million miles / And ask for nothing but a plate of food and a place to rest.” They had screamed out ballads lamenting the plight of the working class. The earnestness, the raw emotion that came through even once the acoustic guitars started fading from their repertoire was being replaced by a shallow desire to “make it.”
New Wave, and its Sire follow-up White Crosses, were produced by Butch Vig—the man behind the board for Nevermind and the latest Green Day record. Vig wore down Against Me!’s rough edges, and the product was crisp and clean, ready for the radio—pretty much everything a long-time Against Me! fan would despise. But it cleaned them up enough to do an arena tour with the Foo Fighters.
Transgender Dysphoria Blues leaves all this pop sheen behind, the songwriting finally again feeling like more than a series of scrutinized singles. It was recorded in a Florida studio Laura built herself, and the resulting force reveals the punk band they seemed to be stifling since 2003’s As the Eternal Cowboy. Her politics embedded into songs about death and identity, it’s this sense of rebirth that Transgender Dysphoria Blues really captures. Lyrics like “You’ve got no cunt in your strut / You’ve got no hips to shake / And you know it’s obvious / But we can’t choose how we’re made” bring us closer to Laura than perhaps we’ve ever been before. It’s what makes this record the best thing they’ve put out in over a decade. [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMh4DclBNJg]