The only thing that was surprising was just how unsurprised I was. I know that, as a Tennessean at the time, I was required by law to freak out over anything that was even slightly out of the hetero-normative spectrum. But my only thought was, "Good for Tom! Er, Laura!" When the news broke (via Rolling Stone as well as every single person in my news feed simultaneously) that the leader of Against Me! — the Florida-based punk outfit responsible for some of the past decade's catchiest, most intelligent rock music — was in the process of gender re-assignment and had started hormone treatments, electrolysis and the whole bio-chemical process of aligning one's body with one's brain, and indeed one's soul, there was almost a sense of relief.
Tom Gabel was now Laura Jane Grace, and there was no hiding it or skirting the issue. And all in one fell swoop ... well, not much changed for me as a fan. The person who I had respected for so long, the person who had written some of the finest songs of our generation, was still there — perhaps more there than ever — even if gender pronouns had been swapped and some extra mascara had been applied. It made me happy to know that this person I had admired for so long had found the happiness she deserved, and that the transgender community — long relegated to second-class status, even sometimes among the queer community — had a new, bold, intelligent voice to explain this complex and unfamiliar side of humanity that is, frankly, difficult to parse for those of us on the outside.
From the earliest days of Against Me!, Grace's strongest skill was finding the center of that Venn diagram: being sure of everything and being sure of nothing, finding the challenge at the heart of contradiction, taking that challenge and running through all the possibilities. In a genre where myopic rhetoric and hooligan-chant politics are the rule, the choruses of the early drum-guitar-duo incarnation of Against Me! — particularly in "Walking Is Still Honest" and "Burn" from the classic Crime as Forgiven by Against Me! EP — cut through the post-adolescent malaise of Clinton-era-leftover Battle of Seattle anarcho-suburbanism in the immediate wake of 9/11.
Against Me! Is Reinventing Axl Rose — their first full-band album and the best anti-anthem to Dubya's war-boner that anyone could have written — captures a left wing in collapse with equals parts dread and joy, humor and insight via songs like "We Laugh at Danger (and Break All the Rules)" and "Those Anarcho Punks Are Mysterious." "Unprotected Sex With Multiple Partners" from Searching for a Former Clarity is easily among the most scathing breakdown of the 21st century music industry ever: The snarled percentages Grace lists say more about the state of punk rock and its relationship with capitalism than a billion blog posts. When Grace sings, "We can be the bands we want to hear; we can define our own generation," on the title track from New Wave, the band's 2007 debut on Warner Music Group's Sire Records, it feels as if she's negotiated a truce in the long-standing battle between punk rock and adulthood — a truce that left each side thinking it had won the war.
And New Wave's closer, "The Ocean" — a cinematic portrait of what in hindsight is clearly Grace's own childhood dysphoria — stands as one of the finest moments in the band's catalog. In a decade-plus of recording, Grace had never shied from tackling the contradictory or the complex, asking questions and questioning the answers, exploring areas of the human psyche touched on by few others in the field of modern punk rock. But even the openness of "The Ocean" seems cloistered in comparison to the open vein that is this year's Transgender Dysphoria Blues.
On the latest Against Me! record (out Jan. 21) Laura Jane unleashes a torrent of emotions, a cascade of stories that make for one of the most important and insightful records to emanate from the punk community in a long, long time. Tracks like "True Trans Soul Rebel," "Drinking With the Jocks" and "Black Me Out" not only hit all of the intellectual, emotional and political points that make Against Me! great, but the soul-baring nature of the works makes it the band's most poignant and personal yet. And all political and personal statements aside, regardless of the cultural importance of this record — and it is important — Transgender Dysphoria Blues is an incredible rock 'n' roll record and one of the finest works in the AM! catalog.