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Against Me! Challenge Old Fans and Mint New Ones With ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: January 21, 2014
Label: Total Treble

No one knows what to expect from such a high-profile album by not just a transgender rock’n’roller, but an established (maybe even mainstream!) rock’n’roller transitioning in the middle of her career. But you can bet that many fans, even the most supportive ones, have created a private scorecard to track how well this “new” version of Against Me! adheres to the same purposes and pleasures of the “old.”

You have to love the thought of Laura Jane Grace being her own Yoko, with some fans worried about the effect of new hormones on her voice, which, on the long-simmering Transgender Dysphoria Blues, indeed sounds shorter on grit than Tommy Gabel’s — until you reach track four, where you learn that she was just saving up her bile for “Drinking with the Jocks,” a sub-two-minute account of “laughing at the faggots” that pulls no punches, even on the singer who admits to “all my life wishing I was one of them.”

Even denizens of are unsettled by the tune, which is far from an academic roundtable on intersectionality, and leads into “Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ,” wherein Grace details her ideal punishment for those who’ve tormented and murdered a people to whom she now belongs, promising they’ll hang like Mussolini with their skulls caved in like his mistress. The revenge-minded closer “Black Me Out” is no It Gets Better campaign, either: “I want to piss on the walls of your house / I want to chop those brass rings off your fat fucking fingers.” If the distressing cover art didn’t make it clear, yes, this is Against Me!’s darkest album.

But first, about that grit thing. Grace’s voice may appear cleaner and longer on Freddie Mercury vibrato on her band’s sixth record (and first since coming out as transgender in the pages of Rolling Stone), but “Jocks” and “Bin Laden” prove she’s simply deploying her scream more selectively, possibly to fuck with us. There is a shift in sound here: The more-or-less jangling guitars that festoon, say, “FuckMyLife666” have an ’80s-college-radio vibe, which mixes oddly with the rawer production that largely renounces Butch Vig’s Wall of Sound on 2007’s incredible New Wave and 2010’s underappreciated White Crosses. To put it in terms of the Replacements, think the grim maturity of Tim crossed with the still-righteous fury of Stink: Grace’s gender affirmation isn’t the only reason her band started covering “Androgynous” live.

While the backstory makes this by default one of the most fascinating records of the year, here’s hoping the new fans it creates track back to other iterations of the band, one of the best in all of punk or rock, especially since Vig gave them the Nevermind treatment and Grace brought songs to match. As for this iteration, ex-Angels & Airwaves drummer Atom Willard flattens the otherwise excellent “True Trans Soul Rebel” with misplaced downbeats — just compare it with the solo acoustic version previewed last year that somehow rocks harder. The groovable Warren Oakes of such classics as “Americans Abroad” and “Piss and Vinegar” is genuinely missed. Meanwhile, Grace handles most of the bass herself, with help from Fat Mike on two tracks, and both she and longtime axeman James Bowman work overtime to make the leads on “FuckMyLife666” or “True Trans Soul Rebel” worthy of the songs themselves.

It’s the only real disappointment about this record, that the specter of Solo Project hangs over it just at the moment when a pioneering trans star is rallying supporters together in such a loving, high-profile way. But the songs themselves are undeniable, with the Johnny Thunders power-pop blare of “Dead Friend” and the mush-mouthed title tune and the unfuckable Gary Glitter shuffle of “Unconditional Love” standing especially tall. And while it’s easy to call the words a bit moribund when you haven’t walked in Grace’s shoes, she’s more quotable than ever: “You don’t need to worry about tomorrow anymore / Because you’re dead” and “You’ve got no cunt in your strut” should make Imperial Teen jealous, or proud, or both, even if you might need a lyric sheet to catch them.

Don’t expect anything here to hit as hard as 2007’s “The Ocean,” wherein fans had no idea Grace was privately confessing that she was living the wrong life: “And if I could’ve chosen / I would’ve been born a woman.” But she has plenty of time to write something that does, and Transgender Dysphoria Blues proves she will. Once it all sinks in, the self-released approach, scrapped-together band, and 29-minute running time should only shock those who expected this to be a huge statement by Grace on anyone’s terms but her own. This is no rock opera, no American Idiot, no novelty. It’s simply the first music of the rest of her life, and she’s going to write many more songs — possibly even better ones — to regale a whole new audience with her uncharted experience. There is an ocean in her soul.