It strikes me as somehow appropriate in a year that’s killed off Prince and David Bowie, given us marriage equality, bathroom laws in North Carolina, and ultimately a Trump Presidency that we have someone to look to in the musical world as a relatively unfiltered voice of rage. Not at the machine. At everything. That voice belongs to Laura Jane Grace.
This album is metaphor and continuation of her coming out party and at some point she will just get to be herself instead of being couched in the phrases that make her the property of others. She is acutely aware of this. As one listens through each track here it feels less like the manic scribbling in a personal journal that Transgender Dysphoria Blues was, but more like an artist relaxed, opening up their sketchbook.
Looking at the “sketches” inside Shape Shift With Me there’s a distinct narrative happening, one of someone becoming comfortable with themselves and letting go of some of the demons that may have tormented them for so long. And, yes, still flipping off all of the things that perpetuate a staid patriarchy while simultaneously mocking it.
“ProVision L-3” serves as a sonic announcement of intent that at first listen is reminiscent of the late 90s SoCal punk scene (think early Offspring) but leans heavily on a chant-along chorus that some might hear echoes of bassist Inge Johansson’s previous band, The (International) Noise Conspiracy. It’s the kind of song that works as an opener precisely because it is simple, loud, and assertive. The thought that it just might make its way onto some jock rock compilations or tailgate mixes makes it slightly more delicious.
The other thing of note with the opening track is that it sets the tone that this is a slightly different Against Me! than we’ve become accustomed to hearing. Tracks like “12:03”, “333”, and album closer “All This (And More)” are the closest progeny to earlier AM! material aside from “Haunting, Haunted, Haunts” which harkens back to their classic “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong”. The other 8 tracks on this album are as diverse as anything one might have ever expected from the band.
One of the album’s other strengths lies in Grace’s lyrics. We enter new ground as listeners if we choose to hear her words from a trans perspective as intended. She is speaking from the heart in what feels like a much more comfortable space than on Transgender Dysphoria Blues.
Of the “new children”, “Boyfriend” and “Crash” stand out for their respective nods to icons like the Pixies on the former and Big Star/The Replacements on the latter. The trio of tracks “Delicate, Petite & Other Things I’ll Never Be”, “Dead Rats”, and “Norse Truth” are the slinkiest outliers here and the fact that Grace and the band make them all work within the larger context of the album speaks well of the growth that has occurred. Bringing in Cody Votolato (of Blood Bros. fame) for “Norse Truth” is an inspired choice for the one song that, from a musical standpoint, fascinates me. It is utterly unlike any other AM! material that I remember.
The other two tracks are interesting for what they are and are not. “Rebecca” leans so hard in the direction of Screeching Weasel that one wonders if mocking Ben Weasel might not be a part of its underlying mission. Regardless, anytime anyone in the last 15-20 years says “I’m going to write a Ramones-style song” this is kinda what comes out. Either way, it’s fun and has the bonus of making dudes sing along with a trans-woman talking about wanting to kiss another woman.
And “Suicide Bomber” gets an A for effort and breaking the AM! mold but sadly, the music didn’t quite get all the way home. The song has the feel of that weird throwback period we saw in alt-rock during the late 80s and early 90s, adding unnecessary 60s psychedelic elements to perfectly acceptable pop-rock tunes. The lyrics are still pretty fantastic when taken in context, though.
The casualness with which the influences come together on this album belies the comfort that it seems like Grace is reaching as a performer, which makes the sharper lines in other tracks more poignant than the napalm and scorched earth angst of prior efforts. Some bands, when they attempt to stretch themselves, wind up falling flat. This album, however, feels like a band spreading its wings and enjoying a freedom from a former clarity. I can’t wait to see what Grace cooks up in the next batch of AM! songs if this kind of adventurousness is going to become the norm.
She says the new Against Me! album, Shape Shift With Me, was the easiest to write of her career. It certainly feels that way from the first track to the last. All of her sketches come together in a way that make SSWM a landmark album on so many levels. In a 2014 Reddit AMA Grace said “Don’t take any shit from anyone. Keep your head up. Don’t feel like you have to go from Box A to Box B. Surround yourself with people [who] love you for who you are and accept you without judgement.” In 2016 it sounds like she followed her own advice and we as music listeners are the better for it.
Shape Shift With Me is available now via Total Treble Music.