Against Me! – ‘Shape Shift With Me’

By Matthew Wilson

“I wanna be more real than all the others,” scowls Laura Jane Grace on ‘Delicate, Petite & Other Things I’ll Never Be’, “I wanna be so real, you can see the difference!”. If there ever was a person who had a claim in punk rock on being ‘real’, then Grace is the prime contender for it. Since coming out as transgender in 2012, and 2014’s explosive ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’, the echoes have reverberated throughout popular culture, sending ripples through the band’s back catalogue as throwaway lines about dressing up in women’s clothing and choosing to be born female suddenly gave new layers of meaning to old songs.

But coming out doesn’t end all your problems. ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’ was the explosion; ‘Shape Shift With Me’ is the aftershock, the day-to-day reality of living as a trans-person. It’s the realisation that transitioning is, well, a transition; not an immediate severance from the past, but a fluid passage of time constantly moving forward. “I don’t wanna hang around the graveyard, waiting for something dead to come back” sings Grace on ‘Boyfriend’, the transgender take on a topic Tegan & Sara tackled earlier in the year; being treated like “some dumb fucking boyfriend” by a same-sex lover, frustration at being valued for a masculinity that’s now dead.

Nostalgia cuts through most of the record. It’s present in lead single ‘Crash’, which mixes the jubilant joy in coming out with the sobering realisation that time still marches onwards. “Let me stay up in your orbit a little while” pines Grace in a land of conjured nostalgia above classic rock influences. This is Against Me at their most introspective and experimental since ‘Searching For A Former Clarity’, shaking off the stigma that political bands can’t write about emotional themes. In doing so, Grace has tapped into a well of lyrical potential that finds her at her most adventurous.

It’s probably because Against Me feel like a coherent band again. The addition of former Refused/International Noise Conspiracy bassist Inge Johansson and legendary punk drummer Atom Willard has given Grace and longstanding guitarist James Bowman a rhythm section with the drive to push Against Me’s punk rock into fresh musical territory. Johannson’s elastic basslines – impressively deployed on ’12:03′ –  and Atom’s frantic beats grounding Grace and Bowman’s guitars, opening up new musical styles to develop that complement Grace’s wide variety of subject matters.  

At its core, that’s why ‘Shape Shift With Me’ works so well. I know I’ll spend the next few weeks exploring Grace’s transgender politics and lyrical dexterity, but it’s in the present that I find myself bobbing my head more and more to ‘Boyfriend”s groove, moshing to the doom-goth of ‘Dead Rats’, even before it explodes into the riotous hardcore coda. I want to throw myself around to ‘Haunting, Haunted, Haunts”s cow-punk with the same intensity as I would to something off ‘Reinventing Axl Rose’. And then, when the last bars of ‘All This (And More)’ fade into nothing, I hit play again and howl along with Grace on riotous opener ‘ProVision L-3’.

‘Shape Shift With Me’ is a bold, adventurous and raw account of life as a trans-person, but it’s also just a killer rock album, with a heady confidence in living life honestly whilst still married to punk rock’s swagger. “Just because I can intellectualise it, doesn’t mean I can’t feel it in my chest!” growls Grace on ‘Norse Truth’. “C’mon, shapeshift with me. What have you got to lose?”

MATTHEW WILSON

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