It should be noted that Against Me! - Laura Jane Grace’s iconoclast project formed from the ashes of previous stints in punk - has always been a band concerned with identity. Even the band’s name sets up a diametric opposite between what we feel, and who we are. Between the bands formation in 1997 through to present day, the band has always been exploring such issues; what it means to be a human being, and the grander politics surrounding such discourse. One has to question, what is it that keeps a band in the spotlight so long, to such acclaim, and with such a fervent fan base. In looking at any band lauded over decades, it always boils down to the same 3 factors: Relevance, Celebrity, and Evolution. With 2016’s release of, Shape Shift with Me, Against Me! turns these factors on their head, laying a clean slate for what’s to come and positing the question: where’s next for punk, and on a grander scale, for people.
Let’s begin with relevance. Against Me!’s punk opus, Transgender Dysphoria Blues (the band’s sixth, and previous studio album) was a towering work that riffed on many of the emotional issues lead singer, Laura Jane Grace, experienced at the time of its fruition. Essentially the album focused on gender dysphoria; specifically, Grace’s acceptance of self and status as a recently transgendered woman. Many cynics are quick to label this generation as an epoch in time devoted to self-indulgence, and, while they’re not wrong, this framing of self-regard fails to capture the positive aspects of what self-love and acceptance can mean for our future. If Dysphoria Blues was an album that made a case for the individual in a culture that refused to do so, Shape Shift with Me is about the aftershocks; post explosion – the ‘what’s next’ in a life where we can live as our true selves - It is a quieter statement then the previous album, but one of no less importance.
Tracks like the opener, ProVision L-3 (which takes its name from an invasive airport security mechanism), examine the latent effects of an intolerant time. It is a display of Against Me!’s song writing strength; their ability to take small symbols and attributing to them a social significance. Further into the album, the pop stylings of Boyfriend stand out as an album highlight. Grace sings out in a damaged war cry:
You’re treating me like a boyfriend / Some dumb fucking boyfriend
This is an album littered with love songs. Each is rendered through the eyes of a woman who knows both genders and the stereotypes of each. This leads on to the celebrity of Laura Jane Grace, and how it is impossible to listen to the album without projecting her celebrity onto the lyrics. With the band’s fan base and Grace’s status as a Trans woman, the singer has, by proxy, been elevated to a torch holder for Trans women in music - a sort of punk matriarch. Her art has become a podium for which she can share her thoughts and experiences to a marginalized group. This transfers to each song with lyrics that run deeper than their sharp and short punk sensibilities suggest. Other standouts on the album include 333, a speedy pop punk gem littered with knotty stanzas, and Norse Truth, the lyrics of which include the album’s title. Unfortunately, the sonic structure for a few of these songs doesn’t keep up with the lyrical quality. Each backbeat and riff combo occasionally becomes too standard; blending into one rambling backbeat for Grace’s words to run over the top of.
In examining this album and its themes, it brings to mind another high profile art piece of the same nature: the television series Transparent. Both deal with identity, both deal with relationships, but most importantly both question what comes after we are granted the lives we truly deserve. It is through this question that we can ask what’s next. In the first season of Transparent, the writers spent hours building the Trans protagonist as an empathetic, soulful and beautiful human, only to conclude the season and to move on with the story in directions not related. It is in this narrative space we can predict the evolution of Against Me! - What comes next for the band and their art? Basically: whatever they want. Now that audiences and even members of the band themselves - are privy to who they are and what they want, they are free to take their music in whichever direction suits them. Shape Shift with Me is a quiet and mediative statement on relationships, but to the success of the band – fronted by one of music’s great matriarchs - we understand it means so much more.