Laura Jane Grace came here to chew bubblegum, wear a sundress and chop the rings off a bigot’s fat fingers — and she’s all out of bubblegum.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For the benefit of the uninitiated, let’s go back two years, to when Grace was Tom Gabel, frontman of Florida punks Against Me. Scruffy-looking anarchist types harboring a serious Springsteen jones, the band’s greatest claim to fame, for many years, was being the smartest, most soulful group to regularly play the Warped Tour.
Then in June 2012, Gabel appeared in Rolling Stone magazine, a towel wrapped around his head as if he’d just stepped out of the shower, his thin, well-tattooed torso sheathed in what looked like a short black dress. In the proceeding pages, Gabel detailed his struggle with transgender dysphoria, a condition described in the article as “a feeling of intense dissatisfaction and disconnect from the gender you were assigned at birth.” He was done struggling in private.
“Right now, I’m in this awkward transition period,” he said at the time. “I look like a dude and feel like a dude, and it sucks. But eventually I’ll flip, and I’ll present as female.”
Popular music isn’t entirely unfamiliar with the plight of the transgendered, but no musician of Grace’s stature has begun transitioning in the middle of his or her career. Understanding isn’t guaranteed, even in the circles she runs in. Punk might think itself a bastion for outcasts, but in truth, it’s no more accepting than, say, the NFL. There’s a reason both Grace and Michael Sam were recently given reality shows: There is an intense public fascination with anyone who identifies as something other than “straight white male” traversing a not-entirely-friendly culture. We want to know what coming out will mean for them, professionally and, in Grace’s case, artistically.
Released in January, Transgender Dysphoria Blues is the first Against Me album since the singer-guitarist formerly known as Tom Gabel began living as a woman. It is not, as some might have expected, a weepy plea for acceptance. Instead, it’s a pipe bomb exploded in the face of intolerance.
It’s devastating from the jump. On the opening title track, Grace laments her “tells,” the physical signs that she is not a genetic female: broad shoulders, no hips. “You want them to see you like they see every other girl/They just see a faggot,” she shouts, leaning into the slur. (For the record, Grace remains married to her wife.)
From there, though, the catharsis comes in the form of sheer bloodlust. Songs like “Black Me Out” and the almost-metal “Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ” read like anti-homophobe revenge fantasies, with Grace promising to “piss on the walls of your house” and do to those who’ve harmed the trans community what the communists did to Mussolini in Italy. Death lingers throughout. “True Trans Soul Rebel” contains the album’s most rousing riff, but it’s deployed over a suicide elegy with an “obvious end”: “Slit your veins open/You bleed it out.” “Two Coffins” is more directly haunting. The album’s lone moment of relative quietude, Grace imagines decaying alongside, presumably, the wife who has remained by her. “One day soon there’ll be nothing left of you and me,” she sings. That’s about the record’s sweetest moment.
But Grace saves the most brutal laceration for herself: On the scorching “Drinking With the Jocks,” Grace confesses that, in her previous life, she hid amongst the tormenters she now dreams of mutilating. “I’m laughing at the faggots,” she screams, damn near exploding her larynx. “Just like one of the boys.” It makes her other threats all the more grave: If she’s willing to throw her former self under the bus, imagine where she’ll throw all those other jerks.
Anyone who worried — perhaps more than they’d admit aloud — about how Grace’s personal transition would affect the band, can rest assured that all this violence and vitriol is delivered via the same post-Replacements power-pop of the 2007 classic New Wave. Yet there’s nothing in the group’s catalog that hits quite as hard. Transgender Dysphoria Blues is Against Me’s angriest, darkest album yet, but also its bravest, and quite possibly its best.
Against Me will perform at the Ventura Theater on Tuesday, May 27. For tickets, visit www.venturatheater.net.