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Music Review: Transgender Dysphoria Blues/Against Me!

by Janna Pelle

If you’ve ever wondered what a cut-open cross-section of a transgendered’s breast is like from the inside, Against Me! will show you what it looks like – and sounds like – with their new album, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues.”

Ever since Tom Gabel went public with who she really was, I have been fascinated by the milestone and anxious to hear what the future held for Against Me! (exclamation point used as part of the correct spelling of band name, but may also be interpreted to illustrate my excitement)…!

My first worry when building my anticipation for the album was that it would be too overt. Too literal. Too… transgendered? I know this may seem like a strange thing to say out loud, but one of my favorite parts about listening to past Against Me! records  is that even though now, the inspiration and meaning of songs are obviously related to Tom Gabel’s struggles as a transgender, they were cryptic enough be relatable – with themes like being trapped in your own body, feeling uncomfortable and self-conscious, lying to yourself, confusion, anger, self-loathing – the list goes on – that both transgendered and non-trans fans could identify with.

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The beauty of the songwriting was in the relatability – by not explicitly saying “transgendered,” she appealed to a wider audience, but still was able to write raw, passionate lyrics that expressed what she was experiencing. But with the new album, I was anticipating that this would not be the case.

Now, I couldn’t personally imagine how liberating it must feel to come out as a transgender, have the overwhelming support of friends, family, and fans. I couldn’t fathom the internal monologues that took place before reaching the decision to come out, nor could I put myself in the position of experiencing the anxiety that led up to this decision.  So, if Laura Jane Grace wants every song to have an anthemic chorus screaming, “I’M TRANSGENDERED!” and an album title to match, so be it – Who am I to tell her otherwise?

“Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” is the first track on the album of the same name.  I listened to the song, and though I didn’t find it particularly memorable, I was glad that even though the title was about as obvious as one could get, it didn’t meet the overtly-transgender-centered lyrics I had anticipated. Don’t get me wrong, the subject matter of the song was clear – but it wasn’t the “I’M TRANSGENDERED! Take me, baby, or leave me!” anthem I had been expecting.

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Moving on to track two: True Trans Soul Rebel. Oh, boy. I was ready for my expectations to be met. But when the first line was sung, “All dressed up and nowhere to go,” it echoed the sentiment of past Against Me! records – a lyric that takes on new meaning when interpreted in the context with which we know Laura Jane Grace meant it. The chorus asks, “Does god bless your transsexual heart, True Trans Soul Rebel?” OK. So that was pretty blatant, but I’ll take it.

I was hoping that the third song didn’t have the word, “transexual” in it – and it didn’t. The track, “Unconditional,” was actually my favorite song on the album, with the refrain, “Even if your love was unconditional, it still wouldn’t be enough to save me.” This song was probably written to be reassuring to Grace’s wife, who undoubtedly went through all kinds of emotional trials through Grace’s process – but the song was ultimately written to say a kind of, “It’s not you, it’s me.” Musically it was also my favorite so far, with a tasteful bass walk-up in the chorus that is characteristic of Against Me!’s ability to make simple chord changes interesting. The lead vocals were more subdued than usual, almost sounding like something off an early Green Day album.

The fourth track, “Drinking with the Jocks,” however, returned to the classic, belligerently loud, yelling vocals that Gabel always brought to the band (and it’s clear that Grace has the same capacity to do so). “All my life, All my life, wishing I was one of them,” is the refrain of this song, another lyric that is relatable on a large scale, making it a kick-ass anthem for everyone.

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The album continues with the Against Me! characteristic feel-good aggression until the mood changes with the song, “Two Coffins.” The in-your-face loud electric guitar and grueling rhythm is replaced with hollow-sounding acoustic guitar chords that ring out and echo to a simple trudging drum beat. You feel like you’re being walked to your burial plot in a graveyard in the rain – you’re inside a coffin, with your loved one beside, while the words, “Two Coffins for Sleep” repeats in a haunting chorus.

In Paralytic States, the chorus remains haunting but in a different way: “Paralytic states of dependency/Our waking life’s just a living dream/Agitated states of amazement/Never quite the woman that she wanted to be
Never quite the woman that she wanted to be.” These lyrics were not the “proud-to-be-trans” empowering lyrics I would have expected for the end of an album. Instead, Grace shows her vulnerability – that even though she is much more comfortable in her skin now than she was, she still has a long way to go. One of the verses even says, “Cut her face wide open, shaved the bone down, then pumped her lips up exaggerated, 
A fucked up kind of feminine,” revealing Graces sentiments towards having to undergo such an extensive procedure in order to feel like herself – and she’s still working on it.

The last song appropriately ends with a track called “Black Me Out,” which I interpret as a plea to black out Tom Gabel, mentally and physically, and to say goodbye to the life Grace led as her old self.

Against Me! has done it again – they’ve released another inspiring and introspective album of relatable songs – they just use the word “transgender” a few more times than they did before. (But who can blame her?)

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