Much of New Wave’s lyrics deal directly with jadedness and disillusionment with the music world.
Punk broke into my world auspiciously. Two burned CDs, courtesy of my step-brother, on Christmas Day 2007 changed everything. I had already “borrowed” an absurd amount of music from him, but these semi-legal gifts changed my musical identity. The first was the Dead Kennedys’ Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death! introducing me to political music and proving that an album could scare the shit out of me and I would somehow like it. Secondly, and just as important, was Against Me!’s New Wave.
I had no punk context before these presents, let alone any idea of who the heck Against Me! were. But as my own evolution into a budding music snob began, so too did Against Me! step into bold (and divisive) directions with New Wave. They were Florida anarchists and folk-punks, playing a throat shredding sort of rock’n’roll that had banded together a legion of weirdos and freaks, salivating for a break from the too-cool-for-you music bursting from New York and the U.K. The Strokes oozed apathy; Against Me! cried as they played guitar solos.
But 2007 was the same year that Radiohead gave In Rainbows away for free and The White Stripes released their final album. The music industry was wobbling, allowing for canny bands to shape-shift and try to survive. What did that mean for Against Me!? Well, it meant signing with a label that also housed Regina Spektor and handing the production duties to Butch Vig, who helmed a little album called Nevermind. And what did it get them? A polarized fanbase. Pitchfork famously named them sellouts even as Spin named New Wave their album of the year. Their audience split, some claiming that the band had died, others embracing the shiny sound.
Funny enough, frontwoman Laura Jane Grace and her best friend and bandmate, James Bowman, seemed to see this coming, as much of New Wave’s lyrics deal directly with jadedness and disillusionment with the music world. Though the work could be interpreted as Grace’s own grappling with gender dysphoria, she also took dead aim at posers and pretenders. “Up The Cuts” ostensibly starts as an insomnia song (“Dry red eyes wide open/ Stare at the white stucco ceiling”) but soon morphs into a vicious takedown of “the tastemakers drinking from the same glass.” Grace watches as MTV falls further down its death spiral and also recognizes the inanity being produced by the rising influence of Youtube. Meanwhile, the second verse is filled with PR jargon: “content so easily obtainable/ Is the culture now a product that’s disposable?” Grace is, of course, concerned about paying rent, but she and Bowman answer their overlords with a screamed “All the punks still singing the same song!”
“Stop!” ended up being the most meta of the anti-music biz songs. The chorus of “Stop! Take some time to think/ Figure out what’s important to you” is followed by a stream of rockstar wet dreams. Spotlights, award shows, groupies, all laid out before the Florida outfit, if only they sold their souls. And Grace seems to consider it before twisting the knife. “All of our lives traded for their roses and applause/ All of our lives dedicated to shoving it right back in their fucking face! Thankfully, all this never becomes tiresome. The title track has her proudly screaming “we can be the bands we want to hear!” as a church bell chimes, and for a long time Replacements acolyte, she backed it up. New Wave was a shinier package, but it held all the ferocity Against Me! ever had and polished it with a cool pop sheen.
But Grace was also a storyteller, perfecting a mix of fury, passion and wordsmithing made her the punk version of John Darnielle. And her greatest narrative moment was “Thrash Unreal.” The catchiest thing Against Me! has yet to make, “Thrash Unreal” was the perfect washed-up, strung out, for the freaks anthem of the mid-2000s. Grace follows a college drop out barfly, dancing away her pain in the lights of some dingy dive. She gets turned down by every guy there, contemplates throwing up on the dancefloor and proclaims “Rebel Yell” her anthem. It shouldn’t be life affirming, but it is. How do you turn “No mother ever dreams that her daughter’s gonna grow up to be a junkie” into one of the biggest choruses of its era? For Against Me! it just seemed natural. After all these were the folks that made up their fanbase, the outcasts and exiles, crushed by capitalism, sexism, racism and the grind of the every day, just looking for a break with guitar chords comfortably crushing them.
And Grace was one of those freaks, and exorcised her own demons beautifully with New Wave’s two best songs. The Tegan Quinn duet “Borne on the FM Waves of the Heart” and the sublime closer “The Ocean.” “Borne on the FM Waves of the Heart,” at first glance, is your traditional “long distance relationships suck” song. But paired with Grace and Quinn’s personal lives, it gets more nuanced, and heartbreaking. Grace had only been out of an ill-advised marriage for two years when she met artist Heather Hannoura while on tour. They became engaged in 2006 and Grace would marry her in 2007, something that Grace considered romantic suicide.
“I wrote that song the summer I fell in love with Heather, I really didn’t want to be in a relationship with anyone and I was fighting it,” she later said. As for Quinn, she admitted that Grace’s lyrics summed up “everything I was trying to say on The Con.” The interplay between Grace’s holler and Quinn’s coo swirled around a waltzing beat. Despite an album filled with one-liners and paragraphs worthy of any poetry collection, Grace’s simplest pleas became all the more cutting. “What happens when the summer’s over/ How long before distance becomes a chore?” and “You’re getting caught up in the excitement, you’re making promises you can’t keep/ You need to leave all your options open.” There are few things more devastating than being so in love with someone that you’ll encourage them to walk free, even if it tears your soul to shreds. Grace and Quinn attempted to be pragmatic while their hearts roared and they crystallized that terrible duality.
“The Ocean” is built on an appropriately undulating rhythm, all rolling bass, clanking drums and echoing drums. Grace describes her version of paradise: the sun-kissed waters of the Gulf of Mexico, her floating form joined by sharks, dolphins and other, more mystic, forces. It’s Grace at her most poetic, giving me, a Texan boy raised on the coast, a new view on the brownish waters of Galveston. But her words, poking at themes of rebirth, also had her admitting “if I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman.” As Grace, then still not out as transgender, sings about the healing properties of water, she seems to sink into something primordial, wishing for the sea to wash away her form, to escape a body she felt trapped in.
New Wave captures the moments before evolution. Grace still had two albums to go before she came out as transgender, and here she struggled with societal and personal forces tugging on her with terrible gravity. In retrospect, Grace’s gender dysphoria was an obvious theme, but the crumbling music business, her romantic life, a label change and the eventual firing of then drummer Warren Oakes all loomed large over the sound. Having this album trust into my grubby hands as a recently pubescent 12-year-old impacted me in ways I still haven’t come to grips with. It’s guided me through the times before the break through, the strange limbo periods of life where, terrifyingly, everything seems possible. Not just facing anxiety, but harnessing it for all its fidgety energy, something I still try to internalize to this day. It’s funny how we find our morals. For some it comes from a book or a parent. For me, it was an illegal-ass CD filled with crusty punk, brimming with words I didn’t yet understand. I don’t think Against Me! would have it any other way.