2014’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues reaffirmed Against Me!’s position as one of the world’s most relevant and authentic punk rock acts. An unashamedly raw and vulnerable release that provided stunning insight into the emotional and physical turmoil Laura Jane Grace endured throughout the transitioning process. Equal parts heartbreaking and triumphant it proved that it’s still possible for a punk rock act to shock the world. The question of what happens next on both a personal and musical level was always going to be the subject of much intrigue. In the form of Shape Shift With Me we have our very loud and aggressive answer.
A concept album of sorts, Shape Shift With Me finds Laura investigating the rather ‘unpunk’ notion of love in a very punk rock manner.
The most musically collaborative record of Against Me!’s career, Shape Shift With Me is a dynamic offering that swings violently between the caustic punk of Against Me!’s earliest works and the visceral rock of their latter works, as Laura strives to answer the question “what does love mean from a trans perspective?”. The end result is is an album that, much like its subject matter, reveals new layers every time you attempt to contemplate it.
Pro-Vision L-3 opens things in blisteringly abrasive fashion, delivering the rawest 1:55 of pure political punk rock Against Me! have penned in over a decade, guitars buzz and bass pops as Laura delivers a scathing takedown of US surveillance culture (the title is a reference to the full-body scanning machines at US airports). Offering a new perspective on a much discussed topic, she asks “What can you see inside of me?” via her uniquely powerful howl.
12:03 and Boyfriend follow, offering two very different sides to the Against Me! sound, with the former sharing a sonic resemblance to I Was A Teenage Anarchist (albeit with a complete different lyrical approach) and the latter offering a four-to-the-floor rock attack on a former lover. You can feel the heartbreak seeping out of the speakers as Laura reels off lines like “Of all the reasons to feel hateful/You’re the best of them”. If the anguish of the chorus doesn’t get to you, then you may lack the capacity for empathy.
Recent single Crash lends a ’70s riff rock vibe with its funkified bass lines, addictive riffs and simple but effective chorus melody providing the pleading lyrics the chance to firmly ensconce themselves in your brain. “Let me stay in your orbit a while” Laura asks, knowing full well that the melody gives you no choice in the matter.
The rumbling bass and angular guitars of Delicate, Petite and Other Things I’ll Never Be, offer an immediate counterpoint, evoking a much darker post-punk soundscape as Laura takes on more restrained but no less dangerous vocal approach, while 333 makes more sense in the context of the record than it did as a stand-alone track, acting as a fantastic segue to the rollicking cowboy punk of Haunting, Haunted, Haunts, one of many instances where you can hear the difference that the now established rhythm section of Atom Willard and Inge Johansson have brought to the band. (Willard’s contributions in particular really give the album added punch).
The directness of Laura’s delivery on frantic punk tracks Dead Rats and Rebecca is liberating, as is the bold sonic experimentation of Cody Voltato (Blood Brothers) co-write Norse Truth an evocative spoken (or perhaps more accurately shouted) word retelling of the very painful end of a relationship, set to mournful instrumentation. Laura’s willingness to be this vulnerable on record again is pure heroism.
The grungy vibe of Suicide Bomber provides respite from the darkness sonically, while lyrically it delves into the danger of devotion, while closer All This And More finishes things off in a suitably contemplative manner, ending things on a somewhat sombre and fatalistic note of “All this and more to forget”.
Shape Shift With Me is a difficult record to review in the sense that the thing that makes it most interesting and worthy of attention – its openness to explore new territory – is also the thing that makes it the most difficult to define and compare. Much like love itself, Shape Shift With Me will be different things to different people. It’s not as immediate as Transgender Dysphoria Blues but it doesn’t seem like it was intended to be. In typical Against Me! style it is as different from its predecessor as it is similar. It’s still punk as fuck though.
‘Shape Shift With Me’ is out today, Friday 16th September. Stay tuned for our interview with Laura Jane Grace, up soon.