Power and aggression have always been at the core of the Against Me! formula, from the band’s revved-up take on pop-punk to lead singer Laura Jane Grace’s nihilistic acrimony. On 2014’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues, the group’s first release after Grace came out as a transgender woman, this sonic assault turned personal; the result was a devastating and modern take on Grace’s own transition, told through the lens of a fictional prostitute. The album and its concept allowed Grace to announce a pivotal life change, but with a robust sound that suggested she was the same as ever.
Shape Shift with Me reexamines the dynamics of power, place, and belonging. The title of the rollicking “Norse Truth” references a bygone Viking ideology that “no man has rights who has not the strength to defend them,” and—through consistent lo-fi scuzz, bursts of pure thrash, and lyrics both sharply vulgar and highly literate—Against Me! proves its muscle all over this album, as if constantly braced for impact or insult. Yet Shape Shift with Me is no sermon or show of anarchistic venom, and its greatest power lies in listening to Grace return as much as possible to routine life—reveling in all its petty drama, collateral damage, and missed connections.
On the pounding, longing “Delicate, Petite & Other Things I’ll Never Be,” Grace yearns to be “more real than all the others,” a lyric reprised (albeit screamed) on “Norse Truth.” The realness on display throughout the album isn’t about public or private authenticity, but about feeling and knowing the mundane: the loneliness of hotel nights on “All This (And More),” the ephemeral lure of a hook-up on “Rebecca,” simply getting treated like shit on “Boyfriend.”
Grace sheds any celebrity skin for an acidic take on the colloquial, and her bandmates respond with songs that sound like virtual cleanses (the two-minute “ProVision L-3,” the swashbuckling near-rockabilly “Haunting, Haunted, Haunts”). Others, like lead single “333,” play out as twisted love songs—rare turf for a band more comfortable with protest and fury. “Just because I can intellectualize it/Doesn’t mean I can feel it in my chest,” Grace declares on “Norse Truth,” a key line in the midst of an album delivered from the gut.
This commitment to the ordinary sometimes restrains Shape Shift with Me, at least musically. Besides the keyboard washes and grumbling tremolo guitar added to “Delicate, Petite & Other Things I’ll Never Be,” the album’s production sticks to three-instrument punk, to the point where some of its less-realized songs (“Crash,” “Dead Rats”) are indistinct. Grace can also be cheeky in her commitment to resist big themes; “ProVision L-3” and “Suicide Bomber” spin world issues into double entendres (“What can you see inside of me?” she asks on the former), and both feel overly coy. The brashness and velocity of the album’s 38 minutes are part of its hip-shooting appeal, but this return-to-roots format stifles any musical departure just as well.
But perhaps this is exactly the point: that Shape Shift with Me sounds like a band that owes the world nothing, and has no grand statement to make. One could be forgiven for expecting a soapbox, or a sequel to Transgender Dysphoria Blues—especially given the groundswell of trans issues in the media in its wake. Instead, Against Me! has returned with something truly personal, an album that has the nerve to be small.