Against Me! – ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’: Round 72 – Rob’s choice

Transgender Dysphoria BluesThere’s been some discussion here recently about hipsters, vampires, locusts and dilettantes. Accusations have been flung, recriminations have been slung. Mostly at me. Mostly by me.

Some of my favourite parts of the stories we uncover during our Record Club ramblings are to do with the routes we take to find particular artists and records. Some we hear first, one way or another. Some we read about and pursue, some flicker of interest having been ignited. Some come recommended. Some we lunge towards for unspecified, perhaps unknown reasons. When we get there, some of us trouble ourselves about how and why we arrived. Conditioning tells us to value those records and artists found through some pseudo-organic process, following connections, ignoring external influence – as if that were possible – and somehow tracing a path of truth to the music that beats within our souls.

When we are led to stuff we sometimes feel like we cheated, which is stupid, or like we’re acting the hipster, arriving late at someone else’s party and trying to act like you we were there from the start, despite clearly not knowing any of the rules. I’m a hipster for Against Me! who, despite having been around for 17 years, have only just registered with me. I’m not sure it’s possible to be a hipster arriviste when referencing an album that reached number 23 on the Billboard Chart. However, this is Against Me!’s sixth album, and I’d basically never heard of them before. And here’s the thing…

The reasons I wanted to listen to this record were the positive reviews and because I read about singer Laura Jane Grace transitioning to become a woman. One of the reasons I kept remembering that I meant to get around to listening to the record was the striking illustration of a disembodied breast on the cover. Sticks in the mind, the more you see it.

Those all seem like things I should apologise for.

[Here we go, more sclerotic inner conflict from Rob the self-flaggelating dilettante – just shut up and get on with it you hang-dog wazzock.]

Bear with me.

It does seem a little, shall-we-say, crass, callous, rubbernecked, to investigate a record partly because you read that the singer used to be a man and is now a woman and neither were Genesis P Orridge. Maybe, maybe not. All I can say is that this element of the Against Me! story stuck in my mind, and yes, seems to have generated a profile boost – or is that just me as well? – and ultimately, I check the album out.

Throughout ’Transgender Dysphoria Blues’ Laura Jane Grace takes our curiosity and forces it much deeper down our throats than we thought it might go. You may arrive in part wondering what a transgender woman looks and sounds like when fronting a punk band, but you’ll soon be confronting what a transgender woman feels like when trying to live her life. The record is, as might be expected, specifically concerned with Grace’s experience as a transexual.

Musically it’s direct, rattling rock and roll, played straight and with gusto. There are few artful touches, no flavour of the avant-garde. Against Me! are frequently described as ‘punk’ but in sound they’re nowhere near very much music I would stick that label to. This is tub-thumping, stage-strutting rock music bristling with air-punch hooks and holler-along melodies, and it does that thing with fizzing energy and thrilling gusto. Every so often a rock record will come along and remind you just how amped good, sharp rock records can make you feel.

Meanwhile, if punk is an attitude, and if that attitude is about outsider-ship, being yourself and expressing that directly and unapologetically, then Laura Jane Grace is about as punk as they come. This is the band’s sixth long-player and since the fifth she’s been transitioning to become a woman. The best, most bracing, most air-punching thing about the whole album is that rather than make a downbeat record about how tough that absolutely certainly must be, she’s written a bunch of songs that, despite their often bluntly dark and despairing lyrics, are delivered with such attack, such righteous defiance, that they leave you thinking about nothing other than how fucking amazing she sounds and acts. And why the hell not?

It’s bracing, direct and straight-talking. It’s perhaps a shame to reflect on how remarkable that is, but before we bemoan any lack of directness in other songwriters, remember just how difficult it is to be this concise, this expressive, this communicative. There are lots of lines strewn across the record’s 29 minutes which come over as unpolished and raw. Why not? If you have something to say, a feeling which you know how to communicate, laying a gauze of poetic artistry over it is obscurantism.

More than anything, ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’ feels like a full, unadulterated dose of someone else’s reality, one which you really couldn’t imagine clearly for yourself. And in this age of communication overload, communication this direct still feels like quite an achievement.

Nick listened: Very glad Rob brought this along because, like him, I’d read quite a bit about it earlier in the year, having not really heard of Against Me! except in the most vague way before, and was intrigued to hear it.

Strip away the nature of Laura Jane Grace’s story and the extraordinary directness of the way she tells it and expresses the emotions she’s been through via these songs, and I’d have no interest in Against Me! at all; there are, I suspect, a thousand punkrock bands across the UK and the US doing not dissimilar stuff in terms of riffs and rhythms and shouty choruses (I’ve know of plenty just in and around Exeter over the years), and I have pretty much zero interest in any of it aesthetically. So yes, there’s a sense of voyeurism or tokenism involved in paying attention to and appreciating this record, which borders on being uncomfortable. Furthermore, as someone unfamiliar with how the mechanics of this genre work on an intimate level, I have no idea whatsoever if these particular riffs, rhythms, and shouty choruses are amongst the best that punkrock has to offer, or if they’re entirely mediocre.

But concerns like that are pretty much irrelevant, because the subject matter renders this album, for one listen and concurrent read-through of the lyric sheet at least, a fascinating, moving, and enlightening experience. I don’t know that I’d want to listen to Transgender Dysphoria Blues again for purely ‘musical reasons’ (whatever that means), but musical reasons are seldom the only reasons for listening to music anyway.

Tom listened: I feel a little bit guilty about what I am going to write here because, if I’m totally honest, all I can recall about TDB is the way I felt about it when it was playing rather than what it actually sounded like. But I remember thinking, in much the same way as Nick, that without the lyrics, this record is pretty unremarkable (hope I am not misinterpreting you here Nick – if so, I humbly apologise). The energy is admirable, the riffs are tight, the songs have hooks and melodies sure, but they seemed too predictable to draw the listener in and, in direct contrast to LP1, there seemed to be very few twists and turns…moments where I thought, ‘Christ, didn’t see that one coming’. That, in itself, is not necessarily a pre-requisite of a good record but I couldn’t help feeling that Against Me seemed to have spent a disproportionate amount on the lyrics, leaving the music to work itself out as something of an afterthought.

I didn’t really notice the lyrics…!

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