Following up a landmark album is a difficult task. For Against Me! and their frontwoman/songwriter Laura Jane Grace, that landmark was 2014’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Grace came out as a transgender woman in 2012, but Blues was her first time directly addressing that experience on an album. While the record didn’t spend every song talking about transgender issues, Grace’s newly public perspective permeated the album. For the new album, Against Me! is taking on much more well-trod territory: a breakup.
Nevertheless Shape Shift With Me feels fresh for Grace and Against Me! simply because the band has always written many more songs about social and political issues than they have about relationships. But the anger is familiar. Grace has a history of being righteously angry about a whole host of issues, but Shape Shift With Me is the most consistently vitriolic the band has been since 2005’s stridently anti-George W. Bush album Searching for a Former Clarity.
Shape Shift With Me opens with a two-minute blast of punk on “ProVision L-3”, where Grace repeatedly shouts the title (which is the invasive full body airport scanner that debuted a few years back) and follows it with the line “culture of suspicion.” But it isn’t until the brighter second song “12:03” that the record really gets started. While this isn’t strictly a chronological concept album, “12:03” feels like the beginning of the end for Grace’s relationship. Over a catchy guitar lead courtesy of James Bowman, Grace sings about coming to the slow realization that she’s been stuck with a woman who isn’t treating her well. “I’ve been tethered like a toy to your finger / You walk me like a dog and I’m sick of rolling over.”
Third song “Boyfriend” brings out the full bitterness, encapsulated in the excellent recurring line, “I don’t wanna hang around the graveyard / Waiting for something dead to come back.” Sonically, the song is a rousing shout-along anchored by the band’s excellent in-unison chugging eighth notes throughout the verses. Fuzz bass, chiming guitars, pounding drums, and subtle (but so effective) pounding piano chords all contribute to a wonderful wall of sound to accompany Grace spitting out the melody. The chorus brings home Grace’s hurt feelings: “Treated me like a boyfriend / Some dumb fucking boyfriend.” One assumes there’s two prongs in that feeling; first, that she continued to be treated like a man after coming out as a woman, and second, that she thought the relationship was much more serious than just simply being considered a boyfriend. This leads directly into the classic power pop of “Crash Landing”, where Grace deals with the dissolution of the relationship more bittersweetly. The melancholy, questioning nature of the lyrics here are tempered by the major key melody, upbeat guitars, and easygoing drums.
After these three songs, the album spins out into a more general exploration of feelings, starting with the unwieldy-titled “Delicate, Petite, & Other Things I’ll Never Be”. This is the latest in a series of occasional mid-tempo dirges from Grace that are perfectly serviceable but tend to grind Against Me!’s albums to a halt. This one has a decent chorus with Grace shouting “I wanna know how you staaaay youuung!”, but it doesn’t rescue the song as a whole. “Haunting, Haunted, Haunts” is a little too generic “Woe is me” in the lyrics and lacks a strong melody. Its assets are a cool cow-punk groove and a really good guitar solo, but it still counts as part of the record’s slightly saggy middle. The track that saves the middle of the album is “333”, which is essentially a classic Against Me! song. Grace shoves too many lyrics into nearly every line of the verses (which has its own appeal at this point considering how she’s been doing it for nearly two decades). Bowman has a strong, catchy guitar riff in between the verses. And it all comes together into a huge singalong chorus that the band leans on just enough times to make it satisfying without wearing out its welcome.
Grace changes up her vocal delivery in a couple of notable places on the back half of the record. “Dead Rats” finds her speak-singing the verses (nearly as bitterly as in “Boyfriend”), which gives the whole song a flat, tired affect. Even when the refrain goes to her more typical shout-singing style, the song’s worn out feel is very effective. It also paves the way for the final minute, where the guitar and drums add a layer of tension by sitting and strumming on a single high note and playing away on nothing but a hi-hat cymbal. That then gives way to a double time punk finish in the final 30 seconds.
“Norse Truth” might be the most intense song on an album with no shortage of them. Over a creepy riff and pulsing minor key bass line, Grace goes full spoken word, to the point where it’s not a stretch to call it rapping. It gives her shift to shouting more effectiveness than usual because you can hear the gradual increase from speaking. I’d also like to give a hat tip to Grace’s shout out to one of the best arcade games of all time. “It always starts with Galaga in a bar / And ends in a broken heart,” is a great, great lyric.
“Rebecca” is an ode to casual attraction, and its high speed and sardonic delivery make it feel like it would have fit snugly on Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Closer “All This (And More)” is one of those mid-tempo, supposed-to-be cathartic album closers that often show up at the end of concept albums about relationships. By this point, Grace has accepted that the relationship is truly over. While driving “160 miles to Cincinnati” she reflects on how much she’s hurting and all the experiences and memories she still has. And how she has “All this and more to forget.” As far as concept closers go, it’s kind of half-hearted. Clearly there are still feelings that she’s dealing with, and musically, the song flirts with a kind of big-finish statement, but then it just sort of fades away. Which is nicely ambiguous and goes with the lyrics, I guess. But before “All This (And More)”, there’s the album’s hard-hitting penultimate blast of self-loathing, “Suicide Bomber”. Lyrically, the song finds Grace throwing out uncomfortable allusions like “You’re gigantic to me / The way you bring me closer to death” and “I’m clinging tight to your chest / Explode me like a suicide bomber.” Grace’s delivery is as impassioned as anything on the album, but maybe she realized how lyrically harsh the song was because the song is a duet with Quebecois singer Béatrice Martin, and Martin’s voice sweetens the whole track. The two sing all the lyrics together, harmonizing all the way through. It’s a very different sound for the band, and it certainly serves as something of a distraction to the lyrics.
While Shape Shift With Me doesn’t reach the same highs as Transgender Dysphoria Blues, it’s another strong entry in the Against Me! discography. The fact that Grace is willing to write songs about relationships now seems like another sign of the singer becoming more comfortable in her own skin, and less confined to her old conception of what her band had to be. That’s an evolution that began subtly way back on New Wave, the band’s commercial breakthrough, and picked up steam on the mostly-forgotten White Crosses. At that point, Grace declared her break with her original punk scene on “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” and began to move decidedly away from it in her songwriting without sacrificing the sound she had established.
Here, we hear her saying, “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 helps that the music still rocks pretty hard.