In 2012, Tom Gabel, frontman of the long-running punk outfit Against Me!, came out as transgender to Rolling Stone. The Florida band’s new album, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” is its first since Gabel, now Laura Jane Grace, announced her intention to transition. (Its title refers to the official term for Grace’s condition.) It is a lacerating, powerful work that is universal in its sweep and wrenching in its detail.
In the broadest sense, the album wrestles with topics that are the bedrock of punk songs everywhere — alienation, self-loathing, a longing for acceptance and love — interwoven with pointed, and occasionally clunky, political commentary. On a micro level, it’s a dark and very specific recounting of a very specific kind of misery. Frequently profane, defiantly clinical, fraught with sadness and relief, it’s the sound of a dam breaking. “You’ve got no hips to shake / And you know it’s obvious,” Grace sings on the opening title track. “But we can’t choose how we’re made.”
In retrospect, no one should have been surprised. Gabel had hinted for years at a roiling, fundamental internal dissatisfaction. The 2007 track “The Ocean” (“If I could have chosen / I would have been born a woman / My mother once told me she would have named me Laura”) laid that struggle bare for those who were paying attention.
Until the 2012 announcement, Against Me! was a well-liked, top-of-the-middle-tier punk band that survived a brief flirtation with major-label stardom. Grace is now almost certainly the highest-profile musician to transition, and her new album is part manifesto, part open letter to fans, her wife (to whom she plans to stay married) and her remaining bandmates (two members left after Grace’s announcement, for possibly unrelated reasons).
“Silicone chest and collagen lips / How would you even recognize me?” Grace wonders on “F---MyLife666.” “No more troubled sleep / There’s a brave new world that’s raging inside of me.” In “Drinking With the Jocks,” Grace describes a painful, pre-announcement night out with bros (“All of my life / Wishing I was one of them”). “Paralytic States of Dependency” is one of a few tracks reportedly left standing from the album’s earlier incarnation as a concept work about a transexual prostitute. It’s earnest and awkward, with lyrics only Grace could convincingly deliver (“Standing naked in front of her hotel bathroom mirror / In her dysphoria’s reflection she still saw her mother’s son”). Like almost every track here, it’s a lobbed missile, frenzied and searing and brief — the album clocks in at just under half an hour.
“Transgender Dysphoria Blues” has the hooks and sheen of a major-label production, but it is in every other relevant way a typical Against Me! album, with Grace’s voice little altered from the band’s past discs. It’s shorter than it needs to be, and glossier, too. It’s also flawed, but still one of the best albums of this new year.
Only a handful of songs specifically address Grace’s transition, but it bleeds into every track — even the songs that are probably about something else seem heavy with metaphor. The tracks that address Grace’s struggles with gender dysphoria fare better than those that don’t: “Osama Bin Laden As the Crucified Christ,” which makes references to the deaths of Benito Mussolini and his mistress, is the only song that rages to little effect, seemingly present only to indicate that Grace is capable of thinking about other things.
In recent interviews, Grace has expressed doubts about the future of her band, already buffeted by lineup changes and label troubles — and that was before its lead singer came out as a woman in a genre that is still the domain of heterosexual men. Good as it is, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” is a musical wreck on the highway, a magnet for rubberneckers as much as it is a milestone.
This might explain why, for someone who just busted herself out of prison, Grace sounds more unhappy than relieved. She’s made an album so thick with death and decay that sister tracks “Dead Friend” and “Two Coffins” aren’t the most depressing songs on it. She knows that coming out was the beginning of a bumpy journey, not the end.
Stewart is a freelance writer.