Against Me! has always been the Tom Gabel show. As the founder, singer-guitarist, and sole constant member of the Florida-based punk band since its inception in 1997, Gabel has sung candidly, if not brazenly, about the most intimate of topics, and in doing so he built up a cult following around his public identity. So what happens when that identity is cast in a new light? Gabel came out as transgender in 2012 and is now Laura Jane Grace, and Transgender Dysphoria Blues is Against Me!’s first album since that revelation. The title alone clearly indicates Grace has no intention of becoming suddenly reticent. The songs follow suit. Although wrapped in a vague, overarching storyline about a transgender prostitute, Transgender Dysphoria Blues is the strong, strident sound of a heart-on-sleeve artist owning her newfound epiphany.
That injection of ferocity is long overdue. The band’s last album, 2010’s White Crosses, was its second foray into the major-label world, and it lives up to every stereotype of mainstream slickness. Transgender Dysphoria Blues, on the other hand, is a study in picked scabs and skinned knuckles. From the galloping, Social Distortion-like twang of the title track to the crushing distortion of “Drinking With The Jocks,” the album is erratic, noisy, and soulfully raw. But it also takes time to catch its breath with “Two Coffins,” a ghostly acoustic waltz that chillingly gazes toward the sweet sleep of oblivion, and it leaves room for delicately picked hooks on the propulsive “Paralytic States.” And on “Dead Friend” and “FUCKMYLIFE666,” the forthright, folky touch that’s always marked Against Me!’s best work is at its punchy best.
Lyrically, Grace doesn’t dance around the issue, even when filtering things through the album’s unnamed character. “You want them to notice the ragged ends of your summer dress / You want them to see you like they see any other girl / They just see a faggot,” she blasts on “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” and it’s a theme she ruminates on often, from the adolescent misogyny of “Drinking With The Jocks” to the melancholy question of “FUCKMYLIFE666,” which asks, “Silicone chest and collagen lips / How would you even recognize me?” There are a lot of questions asked throughout Transgender Dysphoria Blues, and it only adds to the accessibility of Against Me!’s regained pop-punk power. Grace may be changing, but so is everyone. What could be more universal than that?