The Personal Becomes Political
While they’ve always been simply a soulful punk band at heart, Against Me! has had a tendency to change significantly for almost every one of their albums. Most recently, since lead singer and bandleader Laura Jane Grace publicly came out as transgender in 2012, the ways in which being transgender effects her personal experiences have become the focus of the band’s lyrical content, informally designating the latest shift in the band’s development. Musically, on 2014’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues and their newest album and seventh LP, Shape Shift With Me, Against Me! sounds somewhere in between the minimalist aggression of Searching for a Former Clarity and the polished major label punk of White Crosses. This old-meets-new approach is indicative the band’s growth, having moved back toward the underground since the days “Thrash Unreal” was getting radio play, now releasing albums through the band’s own independent label, Total Treble Music, all while steadily growing in popularity.
Shape Shift With Me is described by Grace as an album about love, sex and relationships from a transgender perspective, which is a subject that has been seldom, if ever, explored by musicians with as large a platform as Grace. The album is strongest lyrically, its songs generally grounded in Grace’s own thoughts and emotions. Her impassioned vocal delivery—the one constant through Against Me!’s career—is as effective as ever, now given an entirely new emotional landscape to explore, somewhat separate from the politics that have primarily provided fuel for the band’s aggression in the past.
In “Rebecca,” for example, which is a song about casual sex and easily the album’s high point, there’s a giddy energy that comes across strong in Grace’s frenetic vocals, telling intangible truths that add a purely emotional layer to the existing lyrical content. Post-1969, songs saying simply that sex is great come off as mostly jockish. Grace breathes new life into this long dead rock n’ roll trope both through pure punk rock exuberance, and an implicit subtext that transgender sex should be celebrated, which is unfortunately a radical statement rather than a truism in a social milieu where murders of transgender individuals are astronomically high.
In today’s punk rock landscape, the personal is starting to become a preferable approach to the political than the outright sloganeering of the self-identified political punk bands of yesteryear. For example, when Modern Baseball opened up about a suicide attempt by co-lead singer/songwriter Brendan Lukens, an influx of sympathetic outreach from fans soon followed, and Modern Baseball became the de facto public face of mental health awareness for many of their listeners. Songs built on personal thoughts and feelings, like Modern Baseball’s “Just Another Face” or Against Me!’s “Rebecca” have the power to break through political boundaries and speak directly to the human frailty we all share, which is perhaps part of what’s behind Shape Shift With Me’s introspection.
Sadly, the music often fails to match the weight and delicacy of the album’s lyrics. Opening track “ProVision L-3” and mid-album track “Haunting, Haunted, Haunts” sound like little more than cookie-cutter punk anthems. “Boyfriend” and “Crash” are riskier songs that experiment with the addition of keys and a phaser pedal, but still sound tame when stacked up against most songs from Against Me!’s back catalog. The album shifts into high gear during the final section of eighth track “Dead Rats,” and maintains a solid momentum through subsequent tracks “Rebecca” and “Norse Truth,” in which Grace experiments with a new talk-y vocal style, but this brief section feels like a glimpse of what could have been a monumental album, rather than a quiet and flawed one.
Given that their previous release, Transgender Dysphoria Blues laid bare a lot of Grace’s personal struggles immediately following coming out as transgender in a very public media spotlight, it’s understandable that their follow-up would be more subdued. Grace has also been busy with an upcoming autobiography and simply being a public figure. Days after Shape Shift Me was released, Grace was in the news for calling out clothing brand Topshop for selling a 700$ jacket emblazoned with an unlicensed Against Me! logo. Maybe Grace is still adjusting to the spotlight, or maybe she wanted to write a barebones punk album. In any case, while it lacks some of the urgency that’s driven the band for almost twenty years, Shape Shift With Me is an agreeable collection of personal songs by one of the preeminent voices in punk rock. Here’s to hoping the next step in Grace’s career takes her to a galaxy far, far away.