It’s been almost two days since Against Me, with their lineup significantly different than any that’s recorded on an album before, released Shape Shift With Me and in that time I’ve been able to listen to it through about two times. The first thing I can tell you: Laura’s guitar is at the best place it’s ever been. She plays in a punk, frenetic pace, with simply riffs intertwined with beautiful melodic riffing and even solos. If Transgender Dysphoria Blues didn’t put old fans at ease, not only after Laura publicly coming out but also after an album in White Crosses that, while I loved, was admittedly less punk than even their mainstream debut in New Wave, then Shape Shift With Me should do the trick. While it’s true that the group likely won’t return to the political anthems seen in their debut Reinventing Axl Rose, I personally have no problems swapping the deeply political lyrics like the hair-raisingly exciting and raucous entry from “We Laugh at Danger (And Break All the Rules)” where a young Laura screams “And I cannot help but hold on / to a handful of times / when what was spoken / was a revolution in itself / and when what we were doing / was the only thing that mattered,” for the emotional, and deeply personal lyrics of a song like “Boyfriend” from Shape Shift in which you can almost hear Laura’s disappointment, contempt even, as she bellows forward with one of the best lines of the album: “I don’t wanna hang around the graveyard / waiting for something dead to come back.”
Fans or listeners of Transgender Dysphoria Blues might say “didn’t we already get personal? Didn’t she already pour her heart out about what was going on in her life?” First of all, the thing about personal lyrics, the thing that I love about personal lyrics, is there’s never a permanent end to them, and as long as the artist things that there’s reason to share them, there probably is. Secondly, the lyrics on Shape Shift With Me are an entirely different kind of personal than what we got on Transgender Dysphoria Blues, or even White Crosses for that matter. And honestly I think that’s one of the best things about this album. Because Transgender Dysphoria Blues has an interesting place in my pantheon of albums. I frequently site it aw #2, right behind MCR’s Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys. The reasons for that, besides just being a kick ass record with pioneering punk musicianship, is that TDB is indelibly tied to me figuring out who I am in regards to my gender, it’s indelibly tied to my attempt at transitioning into who I wanted to be, and it represents some of the most difficult parts of that process in words a million times better than I could string together. I became a fan of Against Me! when I saw Laura’s Rolling Stone interview at a time when I hated myself for even thinking I might be transgender. Laura helped changed that for me. And I was lucky enough that when I checked out the band’s music, I fucking loved it.
Transgender Dysphoria Blues holds absolutely nothing back. The first time I listened to it I was on my was out the door while the title track was playing and when I heard “Your tells are so obvious / shoulders too broad for a girl” and then a few lines later “You want them to notice / the ragged ends of your summer dress. / You want them to see you / like they see every other girl. / They just see a faggot. / They’ll hold their breath not to catch the sick,” I had to go back to my room and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t shed tears, just as I did upon the acoustic releases of “True Trans Soul Rebel” and “FUCKMYLIFE666.” The lyrics of TDB are undeniably and indelibly honest, frank, and they touch on an issue that almost never gets written about by someone who actually knows what the fuck they’re talking about. That being said, it’s a heavy album. Despite it taking #2 on my list, I’ve only listened to it all the way through maybe 4 or 5 times (compare that to Danger Days which I would put at an estimated minimum of 125 times – that’s not an exaggeration). I’ve listened to TDB so little because every time I do I cry, I feel in my heart, in my gut, and it applies so closely to my life that I can’t separate it – which is why I love it, and why I can’t listen to it.
And it’s no wonder the lyrics were so intense. In an interview that was ironically (though perhaps I’m stretching the definition) posted the same month that I would attempt suicide (7/15), which I just recently came across, Laura Jane admitted to attempting suicide in the aftermath of her public transitions, which left so many of the relationships she relied upon either indefinitely changed or completely severed. This story is all to familiar for trans people everywhere. Coming out and transitioning (if it’s a financial option and a desire), is largely seen as something that helps trans people. With that said, however, I would deeply question the facts behind anyone who says coming out and publically transitioning immediately and automatically has a positive impact on trans people. And that’s what Laura’s story shows. She has said, even in that same interview, that she’s incredibly glad she made the choice to come out and that she is better for it, but what many people don’t understand is that there’s often dark days immediately following coming out as a transgender individual, and as she states in the linked interview, many relationships are never the same following.
So if TDB is a reflection of that initial rocky start to living your true self, what is Shape Shift With Me? This years album, as I see it, is when those rough waters start to smooth out, and life regains some sense of normalcy. It’s deeply personal, as I said, in that it spends many tracks reflecting on those relationships that are gone, or as the album would put it, maybe never were there in the first place. There’s anger. Of course there’s anger. Grace pens beautiful and furious lines as she tries to come to terms with how vastly her life has shifted. Again in “Boyfriend” she sings “Of all the reasons to be hateful / you’re the best of them” followed by the chorus which takes on a much different meaning when you take into account what Laura has been going through: “You treated me like a boyfriend, / some dumb fucking boyfriend. / You treated me like a boyfriend, / like just some fucking boyfriend.” Obviously this packs a punch with the fact that Grace is very intentionally being misgendered by the person she’s singing to. She reprises a similar topic on one of the highlights of the album, the fat-toned guitar driven garage rock homage “Dead Rats” where she spits “And I’m just living in your house, / sleeping in your bed. / It was a nice dream but it was a night-fucking-mare to see.” Both of these songs appear to be about Grace’s marriage which she said “dissolved” over the course of recording Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Though as she has said that she believes the fault is her own, it’s interesting to think about whether these lyrics are really about Grace’s former wife, or if Grace is adopting the perspective of her estranged wife and actually directing all of this anger to herself and to her own shortcomings in the relationship. Like with these songs there’s a beautiful layer of complexity to Grace’s lyrics on the album.
Grace’s lyrics are more honed on this album, where as TDB shined because it was a complete, uncensored outburst of raw emotion, Shape Shift With Me shines for not quite an opposite but more of an adjacent reason: it definitely doesn’t hold back any emotion, but it is intentional in how it expresses it and it where it aimes it. That’s likely, as I said, due to the very different place that Laura Jane is in now, but I would be remiss not to say it’s not also due to her development as a songwriter, as well as the rest of the lineup really finding a beautiful cohesion. It’s a cohesion we haven’t seen from Against Me! since New Wave, because while TDB was great, it was largely great off of Laura’s back, blood, sweat, and tears – quite literally, likely. There were moments (take the full band version of “True Trans Soul Rebel” or the title track), where the rest of the band, specifically the drums, just seemed not to get what Laura was going for. There’s nothing like that on this album. Against Me!’s new lineup works as equal parts of a machine and I have yet to pick up a place in the record where any instrument takes away from a song.
And of course, I can’t get away from a review of this album without talking about the fucking phenomenal guitar work James Bowman and Laura Jane Grace put into this album. It’s not secret to long term fans or fans that have retroactively gone back in the band’s catalogue that both of them (the two remaining members from the Axl Rose days) have grown as a guitarist with every album. That trend doesn’t stop with this album. Melodic riffs like the ones in “Rebecca” and a kind of unexpected solo in the emotional track “Delicate, Petite & Other Things I’ll Never Be” along with the already impressive riffing in the verses and choruses establish the album as the duo’s best effort musically to date. All together, Shape Shift With Me gives us a beautiful, deeply emotional, but much more listenable album than Grace’s last effort. The album shows a band that, despite not being together in this incarnation for very long, is nearly virtuosic in modern punk songwriting and elevates Grace’s vision beyond what she would likely be able to do by herself (which is saying quite a bit, because she recorded most of the instruments for Transgender Dysphoria Blues along with producing the album). For my money, it’s one of the best albums of the year so far, as well as the band’s best effort to date.
Rating: 5/5 (yeah, you heard me)
Highlights: Delicate, Petite & Other Things I’ll Never Be; 333; Dead Rats; Norse Truth