SHAPE SHIFT WITH ME by Against Me!
Genre: Pop Punk, Queercore
Favorite Tracks: “Norse Truth,” “Dead Rats,” “Suicide Bomber”
It’s hard to think of a more appropriate theme for Against Me! to work with than “shape shifting.” The politically-minded Florida punk mainstays have gone through several major changes over the course of Against Me!’s existence, beginning as a sort-of-solo folk punk act, then evolving into a more polished sound under famed producer Butch Vig that was something like a marriage of the Bouncing Souls and Bruce Springsteen, but still good for an album full of anti-Bush anthems. Most notably, though, was lead singer Laura Jane Grace’s coming out as a transgender woman in 2012, which leads us to the Against Me! of today, as well as the best and most important iteration of the band. Grace has become not only a prominent and effective voice in the media for the transgender community, but a better writer and musician as well — 2014’s TRANSGENDER DYSPHORIA BLUES is an explosive record that already has secured a significant place in the punk rock canon. SHAPE SHIFT WITH ME, the band’s follow-up, continues Grace’s trend of centering her writing around personal relationships and sexuality.
Interestingly, for a band that has cut its teeth on being cultural transgressors, SHAPE SHIFT WITH ME often feels incredibly safe, more so than they ever have before. The first half of the LP, as a whole, feels like an unwelcome return to their attempts at radio-friendliness from the Butch Vig days, but without the energy that sets their best work apart from everyone else. “Boyfriend” and “Crash” are both particularly disappointing as radio singles, as musically they make Against Me! sound like pale imitations of other bands and actively work against the band’s strengths in an attempt to sound more accessible.
Fortunately, even when Against Me!’s songs feel musically unimaginative and laborious to listen to, Grace almost always delivers an interesting point of view lyrically — album opener “ProVision L3,” a strange hardcore punk-influenced song that just does not work with the style of production on SHAPE SHIFT at all, delivers insights on the invasion of privacy endured by trans folks during airport security, and is howled by Grace with all the passion and salt that makes her stand out. However, the relationship songs on the record, especially the ones that aren’t delivered with even a hint of energy, fall completely flat. Grace’s musical compositional skills just don’t lend themselves to that kind of song, as her melodies are repetitive and heavily reliant on “anthemic” intervals that are exciting in songs that are based around anger or political outrage, but sound jarring when applied to a breakup song.
There’s some life to be found in the later tracks on the album, particularly in the vaguely Queens of the Stone Age-influenced “Dead Rats” and “Norse Truth,” a song tackling gender authenticity which absolutely crackles with bitterness and life behind Grace’s sarcastic monologue-like verses and a screamed chorus. “Norse Truth” is not only the highlight of this album, but a career highlight for this band. “Suicide Bomber,” while musically matching the more pop-oriented ambitions of the rest of SHAPE SHIFT WITH ME, is welcome for its sex-as-suicide bombing simile, which is controversial, evocative and memorable in a way that Grace’s best lyrics are.
The best part of Against Me!’s work is the feeling that it gives that it should not work, but it does in spite of the listener. Grace has a tendency to cram long sentences into very small spaces, as well as to eschew creature comforts of music like rhyming couplets and prettily sung melody. A great Against Me! song is like a pot of boiling water that is bubbling out of its sides, never quite overflowing, but coming dangerously close to making a mess. SHAPE SHIFT WITH ME, unfortunately, feels like someone has turned down the heat, and the result is an album that feels excruciatingly tepid.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend