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Punk band releases strong album despite personal changes

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Transgender Dysphoria Blues, Florida punk band Against Me!’s sixth studio album, is momentous, perhaps the most anticipated work of their career. The album unveils Laura Jean Grace, the new identity of lead singer Tom Gabel.

Setting aside the importance of Laura Jean Grace for now, Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a refreshing listening experience. Coming off the excellent New Wave and its tepid follow up White Crosses, the band banked its success on the musical strength of TDB. The album, which runs at a brief 29 minutes, is a torrent of distorted guitars, fast tempos and fury, the likes of which fans have been patiently waiting for (and probably turning to other sources for).

The beauty of this album is that the band doesn’t hinge its relevance and attention solely on Laura Jean Grace’s new identity. Instead, the focus is on the music, which avoids the accusations of spinning hype into album sales.

The title track, though hammy and tongue-in-cheek, is far from the happy-go-lucky, “Born This Way” anthems of the LGBT community. It looks squarely at the realism of gender and LGBT inequality: “You want them to see you/Like they see any other girl/They just see a f—-t/They hold their breath not to catch the sick.” Not only is it a dead-eyed stare in America’s mirror of equal opportunity through song, but it’s truly heartbreaking telling of LJG’s autobiographic suffering. Though the themes of transgender issues might not apply to many Americans, you’d be damned not to at least sympathize with what she’s saying.

The less depressing and hilariously titled “F-CKMYLIFE666” continues in the same vein of interior struggle but with a tinge of optimism (“No more troubled sleep, there’s a brave new world that’s raging inside of me”). “True Trans Soul Rebel” features an anthemic melody with a kind of timeless, jangling rock rhythm, bearing more resemblance to Bruce Springsteen than the Germs. “Drinking with the Jocks” is a 1:50 sledgehammer, with Grace ripping apart misogynists and guys who make racist jokes but claim not to be racist.

Though some were taken aback, Tom’s transformation into Laura Jean Grace should hardly come as a surprise to any long-term fan with a keen enough ear. The song “The Ocean,” off New Wave features the lyrics “If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman/My mother once told me she would have named me Laura,” which now seems like a dead giveaway of Tom’s nascent transgender dysphoria.

Whether Tom or Laura, the nagging question fans asked was what would happen to the voice—the ragged howl that has torn through the band’s politically-left discography since ’97. Those fears, it turns out, were wildly misplaced; Laura sounds as gritty and bloodthirsty as ever before, tackling new themes of gender identity with unebbed vitality.

Apart from the birth of Laura Jean Grace, the band went under serious lineup changes. Longtime members Jay Weinberg and Andrew Seward left the band abruptly during the recording process. Atom Willard, drummer from Rocket from the Crypt and Angels and Airwaves, filled in on drums, and Fat Mike, the legendary bassist from NOFX, helped round out the bass parts. Despite these setbacks (losing half your band is quite the roadblock), the band has released one of the best albums of its history.

Though Laura Jean Grace is the most visible transgendered rock star in history, she won’t be the last. Her success and the success of Against Me! on Transgender Dysphoria Blues stands as a watermark for what transgendered people, a group that is often misunderstood and sidelined, can accomplish in the mainstream media. Bringing transgender issues to the forefront and challenging social norms is just about the most punk thing a band could do; the dissection of the status quo is what made punk greats like the Sex Pistols and Minor Threat the legends they are today. The struggle for LGBT equality has a new poster child, and a ferocious one at that.

Correction: January 21, 2014

An earlier version of this article stated that Tom Gabel underwent sex change surgery in 2012; Gabel has started hormone-replacement therapy, but has not had a sex change operation.

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Punk band releases strong album despite personal changes