"I saw the Renowned Orders of the Night in person,” Laura Jane Grace sings on “333,” the sixth track on Against Me!’s 2016 album Shape Shift With Me. “Why would I ever meet that with irony or cynicism?” The name-drop of Anselm Kiefer’s 1997 painting feels like it’s more than an indicator that the singer knows her art history. It’s a key to understanding the themes that pervade the band’s most recent work.
Against Me! formed the same year Kiefer completed that painting, and they have been one of modern rock’s most reliable bands. While many of their punk contemporaries have gone soft with age, living off Hot Topic shirt sales and nostalgia, Against Me! have continued to evolve musically. Starting out as impassioned folk-punk rockers, they can now pull off glam-rock power moves and utilize new wave and post-punk production tricks with ease.
The band haven't just shape-shifted as musicians. Grace’s lyrical concerns have changed a lot over the years. Look no further than the Renowned Orders of the Night to see how.
Kiefer’s painting depicts a man with his arms at his side, lying flat on cracked surface. A brilliant night sky hangs overhead, covered with gleaming stars. The man lying on the ground is smiling. He may not be alive — the way the body lies on the ground suggests a corpse as much as it does a body in repose. One small body coming to grips with the universe — flesh facing off with the infinite and mirroring it.
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Many of the lyrics on the band’s last two albums obsess over similar concerns: the body and its struggle not to be overwhelmed by the outside world. Grace, as the music world’s most outspoken and visible trans member, has penned anthemic songs about gender dysphoria, trans sex workers, and coming to terms with a new identity. The songs on Shape Shift With Me and Transgender Dysphoria Blues are about self-actualization, empowerment, and personal discovery. They’re also about physicality — the way our bodies can mutate and change over time, and how often our emotions and thoughts struggle to align with them. It’s like Whitman said: We contain multitudes.
But like the body lying under Kiefer’s starry sky, Grace’s lyrics are also about the wider universe and how it reacts to change. It’s here that the singer is most defiant and empathetic, singing about the hate and abuse and ignorance that trans and queer communities face when they reveal their true selves to the world.
It may seem like a departure from the band’s earlier political songs, but it’s more of a logical progression than you’d think. While the band garnered attention for writing quotable lyrical slogans like “to you solidarity is a four-letter word” and talking about anarchism and smashing Starbucks windows in their earlier work, there was always an element of self-questioning in Grace’s lyrics. Consider the shift in worldview between the celebratory “Baby, I’m an Anarchist” to the bruised tone of “I Was a Teenage Anarchist.”
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“I was a teenage anarchist, but the politics were too convenient,” Grace sings. In the world of Against Me!, no one bothers to say “the personal is political,” because politics are always personal.
And the band does more than just sing about shape-shifting and mutating. Their new sound walks the walk. Shape Shift With Me is the band’s most polished effort, sounding as layered and clean as a New Wave album. They’ve gone from singing about wearing summer dresses and strutting down the street like glam rockers to making music that sounds like a moonage daydream. Tunes like “Crash” and “Rebecca” reverberate with caffeinated indie-rock riffs, while songs like “Boyfriend” and “All This (and More)” mixes grungy guitar fuzz with music that has a Britpop bounce and swagger. They even get their Rod Stewart on in “Delicate, Petite & Other Things I’ll Never Be,” which feels like it’s just a few disco-shimmies away from turning into “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy.” That’s not a bad thing.
If Transgender Dysphoria Blues is the sound of someone coming into their own inside a chrysalis, Shape Shift With Me is them spreading their wings and flying away.
Against Me! are scheduled to perform on Sunday, September 17, at The Van Buren. Tickets are $22.50 to $37 via thevanburenphx.com.?