Thursday, September 22, 2016

album review: 'shape shift with me' by against me!

I'm not sure what to expect out of Against Me! anymore.

Granted, they've taken a career trajectory that isn't that unfamiliar for long-running punk acts. They start off with a few critically acclaimed, insightful albums with great hooks to boot, get signed to a major label and subsequently lose a fair amount of that insight and grit to cater to a larger audience, and soon after the well runs dry they return to the independent scene, perhaps never to regain that old spark but maybe regain some critical respect or cult following.

And from what I can tell, that's exactly what has happened with Against Me!, but with a twist: not only did frontwoman Laura Jane Grace come out as transgender and transitioned, it became the focal point of her 2014 record Transgender Dysphoria Blues. And not only did it inject the band with fresh subject matter, it also further accentuated a ragged edge that had been long lacking in their material. Now that album was far from perfect - it still felt a little underwritten and I got the impression that the transgender themes could have been expanded a bit more as subject matter that is so rarely explored, even in punk - but, for lack of a better word and forgive the pun, it felt a bit transitional.

But now it's two years later, and Against Me! have a new record ready to go, with reportedly more of a romantic focus to the tracks - which I thought was a solid idea for a shift, given that this was the area I thought could do with more exploration on Transgender Dysphoria Blues, especially if they were ditching the more aimless protest songs that I felt bogged down that record. So okay, I'm onboard, did Shape Shift With Me stick the landing?

Actually, I'd argue it really did, to the point where I'd say this is a better record than Transgender Dysphoria Blues. I'm not going to drag out the tiresome argument whether this album is up to the level of their first two albums - it was well over a decade ago, the band is in a considerably different place - but Shape Shift With Me at its best probably comes closest to the rough-edged grit that characterized those records, less ramshackle and more thick and jagged. And with writing that feels significantly more focused while still maintaining the personality... yeah, I really dig this.

So let's start with instrumentation and production, where I feel this record will be the most contentious, mostly because lead-off single 'Crash' is not a particularly strong representation of the record - it doesn't quite have the bite with the flattened guitar line, even if I do dig the more prominent bass. In fact, if we're looking for one considerable shift from Transgender Dysphoria Blues, it'd come in mix balance - the bass and lower range of the guitars pick up considerably more body and range, able to smolder and seethe to balance against the melodic hooks that have always been Against Me!'s biggest asset. And while I might like the pop punk styling of '12:03' early on, the record really hits its stride with 'Delicate, Petite & Other Things I'll Never Be', with the deeper smolder and the echoing, offkilter lean into the whammy bar on the guitar, which still has a great melody driving the hook. And from there, this record cruises for a phenomenal midsection, from the sharper main riff on the other main single '333' with a fantastic hook, to the interweaving murky grooves on 'Haunting, Haunted, Haunts' that treads right up to the line of a spaghetti western melody, which somehow gets an even filthier tone for 'Dead Rats' that isn't afraid to break towards hardcore for the outro. Hell, even though it's a brighter and bouncier track, I did love the reckless exuberance that made 'Rebecca' one hell of a delirious love song. Now that's not saying that the darkness always works - as much as I liked the trashy bassline on 'Norse Truth' the melody just didn't connect with me - but this is definitely a record that shines when it gets more of that texture and grit... which is one reason I'm not entirely wild about the final two songs, particularly the addition of backing vocals from Béatrice Martin of Canadian indie pop band Coeur de pirate. I don't know if it was because she was dating Laura Jane Grace at the time that she's here, but the vocals don't blend well, and outside of some smoky interplay on the bridge, it's a bit of an underwhelming closer, at least on an instrumental level.

Of course, Laura Jane Grace is too much of a fearsome presence to make them that underwhelming, and once again she's fantastic here. A fair bit has been made of her faster, borderline spoken word cadence she adopts on a few tracks, which reminds me less of hip-hop and more of Say Anything or maybe early Frank Turner - the latter of which you'll also hear some similarities in the melody lines as well. And I really do appreciate how expressive of a performer she is - there's a lot of acid and wild emotion on this record, but she's smart enough to ease back, maybe not get outright melodic but definitely subtle to convey things between the lines.

And really, if I want to point to where this album shines beyond the texture and hooks, it'd be in the writing. Grace mentioned in the lead-up to this release her focus was writing songs that broke down the emotional dynamics in relationships that came with being trans - love songs informed by the trans experience, not just focusing on it. Take 'Boyfriend', which even Grace acknowledges follows in the vein of Tegan & Sara's similarly titled song from earlier this year that pushes away from being an 'alternative sexuality experience' and to consider the person and reality beneath it - Laura Jane Grace is simply far more direct and visceral about it. That's one thing I really love about her writing and where the Say Anything comparison becomes more pronounced - the emotions that Grace evokes in her writing are powerful and the language she uses isn't afraid to get graphic and gripping, but it never feels stylized. She might reference death portrayed through art on '333', but the core of that song focuses on taking that frank expression, pitching the cynicism, and being willing to accept someone with the demons you know and those you don't. Songs like 'Delicate, Petite & Other Things I'll Never Be' shows how she doesn't want your pity - she's dealing or has dealt with her demons, she just wants it raw and real, and even if it's just sex on 'Rebecca', that wild earnest passion is compelling regardless. And man, she's got a knack for bitter heartbreak tracks like 'Haunting, Haunted, Haunts' and the even darker 'Dead Rats' and the desperation of 'Norse Truth', with framing all the more conscious of her own impulses to seek out rough or dangerous situations - she might judge her ex, but she judges herself harder. On songs like 'Suicide Bomber' she confronts the terrifying possibility not just to love a monster, but how consuming such a love could be, and it makes the final track 'All This (And More)' have weight as she tries to put aside a hookup she has to forget for her own sake. Where '12:03' finds solace in knowing she's got friends to go to outside of a neglected relationship, 'All This (And More)' tempers its recklessness. There's an emotional toll she'll probably end up paying, but she's got control of it, and like Lydia Loveless earlier this year: the choice and passion behind it makes things interesting.

In short, I really dug this album. The writing is sharp and visceral, the melodic hooks are fantastic, Laura Jane Grace continues to be a hell of a presence, and the compositions are more diverse in their choice of tones and production while for the most part still maintaining their focus and bite. And for a punk album nearly twenty years in, you can't really ask for more than that. For me, this is a light 8/10 and definitely a recommendation - I'm not sure there's a song here that is as immediately catchy as 'True Trans Soul Rebel', but overall this is a more consistent and sharply framed record that grows on me more with every listen - definitely check this out.

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