The cover of Against Me!'s sixth studio album—the first since frontwoman Laura Jane Grace came out as transgender after spending most of her life as Tom Gabel—features a stark illustration of a human breast. It’s not erotic, and it’s not particularly feminine, but it is brutally clinical: a colorless slab of flesh detached from whatever body it came from, presented like a textbook diagram. When you break everything down into pieces, it seems to suggest, we're all just the same bunch of cells, all doomed to the same fate.
The lean, mean, vicious punk machine that is Transgender Dysphoria Blues, out today, spends much of its 29-minute run time ruminating on a similarly grim idea: that death is an inevitability, and one that, when you’re perpetually at odds with yourself and the world around you, seems like a sensible escape from suffering.
Before Grace came out publicly in a 2012 Rolling Stone article, Against Me! was mostly known as politically radical Florida punks who’d signed with a major label after amassing a big underground following. But as its title suggests, the new record largely addresses Grace's struggles with gender dysphoria, the extreme discomfort with one's body and the gender assigned at birth. Some of the tracks are Grace's own first-person confessionals, but others are remnants of a concept album about a suicidal transgender prostitute—a guise she used to write about her inner turmoil before coming out to her bandmates. Because of that, the album's 10 songs don't make up a gender-transition timeline or some overarching narrative about finding inner peace, but instead represent a struggle from beginning to end. It’s a fuzzy collection of solutions, setbacks, and silver linings that make it a survival guide for any listener.
“On the surface level, the album may be transgender-themed, but underneath it, there are those universal themes—alienation, depression, not being happy—that I think that everybody can really identify with,” Grace told Grantland this month.
She's right: Transgender Dysphoria Blues includes descriptions of isolation that may feel familiar to anyone who's ever struggled to fit in, like on "Drinking With the Jocks," a track about infiltrating punk's boys' club that features Grace at her screamiest (and least comprehensible). But while the themes may be universal, the album's most heartbreaking moments are the ones that feel specific to Grace's experience. (And given the frequently dehumanizing treatment of transgender people by pop culture and the media, the more voices like Grace's sharing their experiences, the better.) On the opening title track, she dreams of passing for a woman, but instead of getting noticed for the "ragged ends of your summer dress," people on the street "just see a faggot."
That stalemate—body versus self, the person she was versus the person she wants to be—kicks off the album's central struggle with death. On the second song, "True Trans Soul Rebel," Grace, or at least her concept-album character, has already eyed an escape from the alienation she describes: "You sleep with a gun beside you in bed / you follow it through to the obvious end / slit your veins wide open, you bleed it out." On the next song, "Unconditional Love," Grace asks, "What makes you think you're going to die any different?" before declaring, "Even if your love was unconditional, it wouldn't be enough to save me." The question is clear: If we’re all going to die anyway, why bother now? By the penultimate track, "Paralytic States," it seems Grace (or, again, her character) has almost given up on finding an answer: "By the time the ball dropped, it was already over / no resolutions for the New Year beginning tomorrow."
It goes on. References to graves, dying young and natural ends populate the album, which offers few moments of relief and even fewer coping mechanisms. One option is to give the world the finger and carry on: The album's closer, "Black Me Out," spews vitriol so angry it's almost funny, and it seems to take solace in the fury. The other option, it appears, is to find something worth living for. On "Dead Friend," Grace mourns a lost loved one while noticing the effect the death has on those who still alive. And on the jarring ode to her daughter, "Two Coffins," Grace reminds that all life is headed for annihilation while positing her daughter's smiling face as the best reason not rush toward oblivion.
As the album's only acoustic number, "Two Coffins" is the rare song of the set that sounds as haunting as its subject matter. Last summer, shortly before Grace embarked on a solo tour in support of the new material, she released an acoustic EP of two album cuts, including the standout "FUCKMYLIFE666." In its raw, unplugged form, the song teased a more harrowing body of work as Grace sang what has become the central philosophy of the album: "All things made to be destroyed / all moments meant to pass."
But in their final, polished forms, the songs of Transgender Dysphoria Blues don't wallow. From the opening drum roll to the layers of razor-sharp guitars, they feel almost celebratory. In its roaring studio sheen, what's most attention-grabbing about "FUCKMYLIFE666" isn't its resigned proclamations of doom, but the sliver of optimism Grace sneaks in toward the end: "There's a brave new world that's raging inside of me." Maybe that's why Grace sounds so victorious on an album with so many references to taking one’s life: The other lesson of Transgender Dysphoria Blues is that, sometimes, when it seems like there’s no way out but death, that’s actually a chance to start over.
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