That Transgender Dysphoria Blues would succeed was no foregone conclusion; in fact, that Against Me! would fail seemed incredibly likely. After a couple mediocre albums and frequent lineup changes, AM! seemed primed to fade even more. But the band has succeeded, thrillingly and swiftly. And more so, frontwoman Laura Jane Grace has completely reversed the image she held in the punk community as a sell-out and a has-been.
There are two stories here, both of which have been harped on by media types like me, and are really one story to begin with. After signing to Sire following their tenure on Fat Wreck Chords, Grace and the rest of the band churned out increasingly generic radio rock that resulted in minor airplay and frequent condemnation in the underground that spawned them. Fans would attend shows only to heckle AM!, based partially on the anti-capitalist doctrine that used to serve as the thematic undercurrent of the band’s records. And it was hard to argue with them: New Wave had only minor moments of interest, and its follow-up, White Crosses, just sucked. If ‘selling-out’ involves a band compromising not only their values but their artistic uniqueness, then AM! firmly sold out.
But in the spring of 2012 things began to change, and fast. In a prominent Rolling Stone story, Grace announced her transgender identity and entered a period of public transition. Around the same time she began interacting with fans to an ever-larger degree on facebook, twitter, and at shows. After an outpouring of support in regards to her transition from fans, Grace, with AM! newly free of its major label, emerged as something of a populist hero. People were actually excited about the band and its music again.
And the music, more than any backstory, is just what makes TDB such a wild success. At 30 solid minutes of Replacements guitar rock and alt-country rumble, this is the most vital and energized the band has been, tearing one tune out after another from the title track to “Black Me Out,” its closing number. However, instead of a retread of the past, the record serves as a kind of counterfactual: what if New Wave and White Crosses were good? If AM! wanted to jump into the spotlight, this is how to do it.
One question raised by fans was whether Grace’s voice would change as a consequence of her transition surgeries. In the Rolling Stone article she assured everyone she’d sound as badass as ever: “Imagine me, six foot two, in heels, fucking screaming in someone’s face.” And in a recent radio interview on KROQ, she questioned just what a woman’s voice should sound like. However, Grace’s voice undoubtedly sounds different than it did three, five, or fifteen years ago, a natural consequence of her growth as a singer and the kind of songs being written. Her melodies are smooth and cleanly delivered, with almost none of her trademark roars (with some minor exceptions, as on “Drinking With the Jocks”), a remarkably full voice in its place instead. Her versatility comes into play: “Two Coffins” and “Black Me Out” sound like they were sung by two different people to fit their different tones and styles.
This newfound assurance toward clear melody is plainly apparent in the songwriting, favoring simple guitar arpeggios for leads that might contain four or five notes total. Most songs follow a pounding 4/4 beat, not too fast or too slow, repetitive and without too many moving parts, a structure that would fail with worse songs. in this sense the album’s relative brevity comes to its aid, as the tunes hardly have the time to become samey. And it allows Grace’s stories, both autobiographical and projected onto a suicidal transgender prostitute who reappears on several songs, to come to the fore, and she now, more than ever, is an effective storyteller, favoring select images like summer dresses, skuzzy mirrors, and caskets without metaphor to disguise them.
All of the goodwill Grace, through fan interaction, generated in the time between White Crosses and TDB resulted in a thrilling, stunning, and enjoyable album, and it feels satisfying, though I have no reason to feel any personal gratification from this. Perhaps I’m just happy to have a favorite band back. There are problems, of course (Grace’s vocals sometimes feel too pitch-corrected, the production is a total brickwall, and the record has a messy mix), but the more I listen the less I care. Grace has succeeded phenomenally. She is in a unique place, able to serve as a role model for a new generation of kids with no clue about the older AM! records. On that account, at least, here’s to hoping the band makes another as good as TDB in the future.
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