Laura Jane Grace sings every lyric on Against Me!'s new album Transgender Dysphoria Blues as though it would have been physically painful if she couldn't get the thought out of her head. And maybe that's true: Against Me! has been around for over a decade, but this is the first record she's ever made as an out trans woman. Grace has always specialized in writing cathartic music, but her new songs go much further. They are brutally frank about living with the agony of dysphoria, and of coming out to a world that is largely transphobic, where even well-meaning people can be deeply clueless about how to deal with your very existence. It's an unrelentingly intense set of songs, and some of the most vital and relevant rock music to come out in years.
A lot of the power of the record comes from how Grace sings specifically about trans experiences — trying to pass despite knowing her "tells are so obvious," ambivalence about undergoing plastic surgery, being haunted by dysphoria even after transition — but places her emphasis on emotions underlying it all that are relatable to most anyone who's struggled with body issues or felt like an outcast. She makes her experience seem universal and sympathetic without abstracting or compromising anything. "We want to be subversive, especially knowing that a good portion of our audience aren't trans or haven't ever been exposed to those issues, or it might make them uncomfortable," she explained in a recent interview with Grantland. "Dealing with depression is really what a lot of that's about. 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."
The reality of the alarmingly high suicide rate among trans people and the high number of trans people who become the victims of hate crimes haunt nearly all the songs on Transgender Dysphoria Blues. This dread bleeds into even a seemingly upbeat song like the immensely catchy "Unconditional Love," in which Grace acknowledges that the support and affection of others can't save you from self-loathing. The most gentle and romantic song on the album, "Two Coffins," is also the most morbid. The paranoia tips over into abject terror on the provocatively titled "Osama Bin Laden As the Crucified Christ," a song in which Grace fears "the best that you could hope for" as being the victim of extreme violence and ritualistic humiliation. (She evokes the image of Benito Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci hung from the rafters of a gas station following their execution in the song's refrain.)
In a time when it's broadly assumed that rock music is no longer a vibrant part of pop culture, Transgender Dysphoria Blues is an argument that heavy, aggressive rock can still be the ideal vehicle for a major artistic statement. Against Me! do nothing to reinvent the wheel on this record — on a purely musical level, there's nothing here you wouldn't have heard on any given Epitaph or Fat Wreck Chords release in the '90s — but Grace embraces the strengths of aggressive rock to communicate thoughts and feelings that simply would not have come across as well in other styles. "Osama Bin Laden…" only works if it's based on a riff that makes you feel as though you're about to be hit with a blunt object, and "Drinking with the Jocks," a song about denying your true self in order to pass as a straight cis man, wouldn't work as well if Grace didn't sing it like an obscene parody of hyper-masculine hardcore. This music needed to be raw, simple, and aggressive, and to be something people can shout along to at a show for cathartic release. Unlike a lot of contemporary rock made by artists who've internalized a feeling that their music is irrelevant, Grace and Against Me! prove that believing in the strengths of rock and having a genuine sense of purpose is the surest path to making something that sounds fresh and vital.