Laura Jane Grace – ‘Stay Alive’

By Ash Bebbington

In a year that’s been full of nasty surprises, it’s incredibly welcome to have something nice happen for once. Enter punk rock legend Laura Jane Grace, who’s just dropped an unannounced solo album of original acoustic songs.

‘Stay Alive’ is an album that in any normal year may never have seen the light of day, at least not as a solo record. With the members of both of Grace’s bands – Against Me! and the Devouring Mothers – on lockdown and in different parts of the country, she had a collection of songs and no band to record them with. In her own words, “I just came to the realization that waiting was going to kill the record and kill the songs. I spent two years working on all these songs, and the idea of throwing them away didn’t sit well with me… I can sit here on my fucking ass and do nothing, or I can work”.

The result is ‘Stay Alive’, a wonderful record, and Grace’s finest work since the seminal album ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’, recorded with Against Me! in 2014. Sonically, it’s an album recorded primarily on an acoustic guitar, with the occasional use of an electric guitar and a drum machine. This is the most stripped back release in Grace’s back catalogue, a stylistic shift that the songs really benefit from, creating space for the emotion in Grace’s lyrics and vocal performances to shine through.

Despite consisting of 14 tracks, this is a relatively short album, clocking in at just 29 minutes. With the exception of one song, none of them are longer than three minutes, with the majority sitting at around the two minute mark. Each song has a different sound, and the shift from one song to the next can be quite stark, despite their acoustic foundations. This, coupled with the short song lengths, gives the album a real sense of urgency and variety that keeps you hooked in throughout. The vocal melodies all over ‘Stay Alive’ are complete earworms, and will compel you to keep coming back for more.

According to Grace, some of these songs had been written for Against Me!, and with some songs, such as ‘SuperNatural Possession’, ‘The Magic Point’, or ‘So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Fuck Off’, it’s not hard to imagine how they might have sounded in a full-band set-up. These are some of the catchiest songs on the record, and will be a great addition to Grace’s live repertoire. That said, however, the vast majority of ‘Stay Alive’ has its own distinct sound, and the record succeeds on its own merits, rather than being an acoustic Against Me! album. It sounds unlike anything else in Grace’s back catalogue, and it’s a testament to her as an artist that, 20 years into her career, she is still pushing herself musically and coming up with an end product that is this good.

‘Shelter in Place’ is one of the album’s standout tracks, and a song that could only have been written in 2020. The song puts a positive spin on quarantine, as Grace sings ‘give me refuge in your shelter’. The aforementioned ‘SuperNatural Possession’ is another outstanding moment, a swaggering, catchy rock number, and one of the few songs on the album that makes use of a distorted electric guitar. Grace’s lyrics are superb, and express feelings that many of us will have experienced over the past 6 months as she sings ‘I’m having a hard time having a fun time / I’m having a hard time having faith in myself / When the strange becomes familiar / and there’s no going back from where you’ve been”.

‘Hanging Tree’ is Grace at her most political, taking aim at the far right in America. She has long been an outspoken critic of Donald Trump’s presidency, and here she directly accuses him of ‘tweeting from a golden tower’. The chorus – not explicitly aimed at anyone in particular, but presumably aimed at Trump and the American far right in general – has Grace singing ‘God is good and God is great / now get the fuck out of the USA’.

The album ends with ‘Old Friend (Stay Alive)’, a classic melancholic closer, in a similar vein to Against Me! album closers like ‘Bamboo Bones’ or ‘Black Me Out’. Like both of those songs, the chorus sounds like one that will be screamed back at Grace by fans in a live setting if and when she tours in support of this album. The song is pensive, but with a positive uplifting underlying message, making it the perfect rallying cry for the jaded and disillusioned in 2020. Then it ends abruptly, leaving you wanting more. Make no mistake, there’s a high chance you’ll be pushing play on the album again not long after this song ends.

Laura Jane Grace is one of the most influential voices in modern punk music, and ‘Stay Alive’ is another fine addition to her already extensive back catalogue. Although this was never truly intended to be a solo release, and despite all the trouble 2020 has brought, ‘Stay Alive’ is comfortably one of the year’s finest releases.

ASH BEBBINGTON

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