I loved Against Me! ever since I saw From Her Lips to God’s Ears pop up as track three on a 2005 Warped Tour compilation I bought for $5 and later found being given away for free towards the end of that dreadful festival. This is how I was exposed to a lot of bands- listening to these random comps and writing down the bands I really enjoyed. When Against Me! dropped New Wave in 2007, the world embraced the punk rock masters alongside me. And an evening bonfire had a whole crowd singing along to just about every classic song from the group’s first three albums, and a guy strummed along through every punk rock anthem with shocking honesty. This is one of my favorite moments of all time. An enchanting evening of music, with fans, sharing and soaking in the music they love. This is why Against Me is one of my favorite bands of all time.
But when 2010 came along, Against Me! was getting frequent radio play and they initially seemed to sell out their soul for a slot alongside radio rock brethrens. The lead single, I Was a Teenage Anarchist, seemed puzzlingly lame. It lacked edge, style, and a personality. I initially wrote the album off as just another example of a once great band selling their sound to the cookie-cutter rock formula. Not that it was bad, but it was the worst kind of music- it was harmless.
And then frontman Tom Gabel came out as transgender and renamed herself Laura Jane Grace. I was astonished. Suddenly, so much became clear. I admired the balls that Laura had to do such a thing, no pun intended. And I recalled moments of total clarity- the moment where Tom chanted ‘my mother would have named me Laura in New Wave’s The Ocean, or when he recalled dressing up in woman’s clothes on the title track to Searching for a Former Clarity.
I saw Tom Gabel as a solo act inSt. Augustine and copped his solo album. Then I saw Against Me! just two weeks after Laura came out as transgender. It was a borderline holy experience. A crowd of 200 people screaming and chanting along to every battle cry- every protest song- ever emblematic cheer, and hell, even the new stuff resonated.
There are moments of sheer brilliance on White Crosses, and I quickly realized how unfair I was to the whole release, largely because I was so unduly unimpressed with the lead single. Because of the Shame may lead with a hockey little piano lead, but it resonates well in this later Against Me incarnation. We’re Breaking Up is brilliantly composed. It has that nice production flair and clean sheen, but it has a killer hook. Spanish Moss is a strong album cut that recalls the chanting excitement of typical punk rock anthems, and the instrumentation bobs along at a brisk pace.
My favorite track on the album is Bamboo Bones. Lyrically, it is such a tour-de-force, and the musicianship is countered with some superb composition and a phenomenal chorus. I specifically remember blasting this song loud and screaming to every line. It had this triumphant rebellious feel, and I am ashamed that I initially missed this stellar piece of work. The lyric What God doesn’t give to you, you have to go and get for yourself recalls something about the reality of Grace that is admirable, enlightening, and absolutely wonderful.
The album’s lead track, White Crosses, is eerily familiar. I worked in St. Augustine for years as a pizza driver, and I know the white crosses Laura was speaking of. They were at a church on San Marco, the main artery that runs through downtown St. Augustine. I found myself driving past this church three times a day. Each white cross on the lot represented, I believe, 1,000 abortions that occurred a year. The lot was covered in them. I remember blasting White Crosses and waiting at a traffic, light, Laura screaming in my ear and my eyes scanning a personification of the horror and confusion of the world.
Ultimately, they were all removed after a string of vandalism. The final push was after about 30 were destroyed and smashed. Something tells me that it was Laura ( a St. Augustine resident, mind you) out there on the church lot that night. It was just a year or so before she came out to the public, and she was battling the demons of self-doubt, internal reflection, hopelessness, anger, and failure. When the signs were destroyed, Laura was reinvented in the most beautiful kind of way.