Against Me!'s Transgender Dysphoria Blues packs plenty into its 29 minutes: fear, doubt, rage, regret, acceptance, sadness and even joy.
All of that was probably to be expected ... it is, after all, the first album frontwoman Laura Jane Grace has made since announcing in 2012 that she intended to live as a woman, in essence making it the defining work of her life. There had been hints — veiled and otherwise — to struggles with gender dysphoria in the past (everything from her band's name to lyrics like "And if I could have chosen/I would have been born a woman,") but here, freed by truth and finally comfortable in her own skin, she's delivered an unblinking, unapologetic effort, unquestionably the most personal of her entire career.
Obviously, Blues (currently streaming on NPR's "First Listen") is about transformation, and, when it comes documenting her physical transition, Grace does not spare any details — on the title track, she sings "You've got no c--t in your strut/You've got no hips to shake," and later, on "Paralytic States," she hits us with "Cut her face wide open/Shaved the bone down thin/Plumped her lips up exaggerated/A f---ed up kind of feminine," — though her strengths as a songwriter are most apparent when it comes to documenting the sundry of small changes that come with a change of this magnitude.
There are heartbreaking lines like "You want them to see you like they see every other girl/They just see a f----t" and "Even if your love was unconditional/It still wouldn't be enough to save me," which touch on her struggles for acceptance, both in society and at home (Grace remains married to her wife, Heather, and their relationship is frequently placed beneath the microscope here). On "Drinking with Jocks," she details her attempts at camouflaging herself as a heterosexual man, and "F---MyLife666" recounts the insecurities and fears that come with opening one's self up to the judgment of others. The album's most snarling song, "Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ" is also its most masochistic, as Grace turns her rage inward, almost cursing herself for being born this way.
In those tiny moments, Blues displays a level of vulnerability that separates it from anything in AM!'s brusque back catalog. That (and the bevy of lineup changes over the years) may give longtime fans pause, though rest assured that this incarnation of the band is still capable of big, burly things. And despite its deeply personal subject matter, it's a work that will undoubtedly resonate far beyond both the trans and the punk communities, reaching out to anyone harboring a secret life or living in fear of public scorn ... which, come to think of it, is all of us. Chances are, you can find some small part of yourself in Grace's lyrics, which is the point, I suppose.
After all, there was a time when this was supposed to be a concept album about a transgender prostitute, and while traces of that idea remain (on songs like "Paralytic States,") it's almost as if Grace realized she would be doing a disservice if she didn't tell her story. Consider, for a second, the album's cover image: a dissected breast, presented in stark black and white. Sure, it's a striking one, though you could also argue that it hints at the album's true purpose ... it is Grace offering up a pound of her flesh, repaying her past debts — to the hypocrites, the homophobes, and herself — in the hopes of finally moving forward.
That she does so willingly is what makes Transgender Dysphoria Blues such an important record. You will hear plenty over the course of its 29 minutes, but there's one phrase you definitely won't: "I'm sorry." Grace has already been through too much to start apologizing. Now, it's time to live.