“Is there a record that is about relationships from a trans perspective?” Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace asks. “I wanted to write the transgender response to the Rolling Stones’ ‘Exile On Main St.’, Liz Phair’s ‘Exile In Guyville’ and the Streets’ ‘A Grand Don’t Come For Free’. All those records are relationship records… I wanted to present the trans perspective on sex, love and heartbreak.”
And that’s what ‘Shape Shift With Me’ represents. Grace’s struggle with her own gender has been well documented, specifically starting in 2012 when she came out as transgender in a Rolling Stone interview, continuing with her divorce in 2014 from artist Heather Hannoura – who insisted the couple would stay together – and expressing the issues on to a group of albums, of which ‘Shape Shift With Me’ is the latest.
The opening track, ‘Provision L-3’, is named after an airport scanner that shows images of the body similar to naked, silver people instead of the crude x-ray. The lyrics approach the subject politely at first, before twisting into an almost shameful ‘don’t look at me/don’t talk to me/I know it’s an illusion’, shouted over the blistering drums and chaotic, yet stylish, mess of guitar.
But the album doesn’t really come to life until ’12:03’, which opens with a catchy bouncing riff, dancing under the words to help describe how Grace is being strung along by a lover. ‘Maybe we get where we want to go/I don’t know/fuck it’ she sings, words punctuated by the biting rhythm of the drums. ’12:03’ is a masterpiece, with every layer of the song exuding sheer disappointment.
The bitterness of the album really explodes in ‘Boyfriend’, with the chorus crying ‘you’re treating me like a boyfriend/some dumb fucking boyfriend’. Now this statement can be taken two ways – first, it says about how people continued to treat Grace like a man even after her transition, and second, the use of the word ‘boyfriend’ as if the relationship meant more than that. Her fierce vocals compliment the brooding music perfectly, hissing over the dark, heated swirls of guitars and drums.
Aside from these three tracks, the album starts to explore more of the trans issues that Grace faces, and ‘Delicate, Petite & Other Things I’ll Never Be’ is the perfect example. Opening with a deep, distorted guitar, it sets the mood for the track. Grace’s vocals are more spoken, shouted even, and the number wouldn’t sound out of place on a Placebo record. The drums are subtle but still stinging, and the guitar sounds a tiny bit like the anarchy that Grace must be feeling. ‘I wanna be more real than all the others/I wanna be more real than all the rest/I wanna be so real you can see the difference’ she wails, and you can almost taste the inner turmoil that inspired this track.
The core of the album is ‘Norse Truth’, opening with the snappy ‘tits out for the boys’. That single line is snappy, sarcastic, and you can clearly imagine it – Grace walking down a street, with typical, sexist men shouting the phrase at her, a phrase that cuts deep. The idea of being ‘more real’ exists in this track, too – ‘I wanted us to be more real than all of the rest’ – and it’s obviously a break up song, but it’s a break up song like no other. There’s no pop music, no crybaby lyrics, no weepy vocals – instead, it’s hard, fast, unadulterated punk. It’s nothing but fuck you; fuck you in the sharp guitars, fuck you in the defiant lyrics, fuck you in the loud, ruthless vocals.
So while ‘Shape Shift With Me’ might not be as politically driven as Against Me!’s previous albums, it’s still a strong contender in their back catalogue. Perhaps the idea of Grace being able to write about her relationships and experiences is a sign of her accepting her current situation, and the themes are fully needed in this society. Transgender affairs aren’t commonly written about in music, but they are commonly experienced, and this record is the perfect place to start – it is, if you’d excuse the pun, a saving grace. It’s like the frontwoman said: “There’s been an infinite amount of records talking about what love means from a cisgender perspective. I wanted to present the trans perspective on sex, love and heartbreak.”
It also doesn’t hurt that the music is incredible too. There are some swellings of hopefulness, swirls of hostility and stabbings of disappointment, and it fits all too well with the themes of the album. It’s a grand performance from the American quartet.