Two years ago, Laura Jane Grace sang about how much she hated her home city of Chicago. Now she’s kinda stuck there. But ‘I Hate Chicago’, a tongue-in-cheek track off her 2018 debut solo record ‘Bought To Rot’, didn’t return to haunt her when told to shelter in place during this stalled year. Instead, on new album ‘Stay Alive’ Grace turns to the pleasures of Chicago sunrises and productive graft. And when the world throws a pandemic at you, there’s something punk in that: the act of survival is rebellious enough.
For 23 years Grace has fronted Against Me!, the subversive, soulful, politically alert punk rock band. Her first solo release shook off some of the band’s spikiness for a looser sound, and this continues on ‘Stay Alive’, though a certain momentum persists – the songs were, after all, intended for Against Me!. Given global chaos and scattered band members, though, Grace didn’t fancy waiting for the world to fix itself. The result: fourteen short outbursts recorded solo, straight to analog tape.
The tracks flaunt Grace’s talent for prolific, vigorous song-writing, despite consisting only of acoustic guitar, drum machine, and voice. Occasional louder instances keep a full-on Springsteen ‘Nebraska’ experience at bay, though the isolated conditions are similar. ‘Stay Alive’ easily masquerades as a quarantine album (a genre that’s already boring), tasked with crossing the days off, filling empty time, navigating loneliness. But just as ‘I Hate Chicago’ was really about divorce, the songs here are more than “hey, pandemics suck!”. Even with travel bans in place, for Grace that twee word ‘wanderlust’ holds graver significance. “Wish I was going someplace tropical / Wish I was going to Portugal”, she sings, then colours the sentiment darker with the line, “I want to be someone that I don’t know”. It’s trademark Against Me!, trademark LJG: deeper remarks on humanity and identity that emerge from the messy real world as clear beacons of feeling.
These sentiments might risk sounding reductive, but keep all their power thanks to Grace’s crystal-clear vocal delivery. There are likenesses to The Mountain Goats, The Hold Steady, and Ezra Furman, but honestly, nobody sings or writes quite like Grace. Perfectly constructed lines like, “When I said I loved you I only meant as much as I know how to”, or “I’m having a hard time having a fun time / I’m having a hard time finding faith in myself”, or “For one more high between me and you / There’s not one goddamn thing I wouldn’t do,” get to the nub of whatever you spend pages scrawling about in your diary. Take the final words in ‘Mountain Song’: “I’m all fucked up, but I’m alive”. Somehow nobody else could sing this line. With incisive empathy Grace establishes a direct route to the heart, and she’s really fucking good at it.
Apparently, Laura Jane Grace runs every day in a cap emblazoned with the phrase ‘Can’t Die’, an anecdote that sums up the energy of ‘Stay Alive’ that’s secured in the final track’s call-to-arms coda of “please survive”. Not all the songs here are strong, and you can’t help but wonder how the record’s Against Me! alter-ego would sound, but her candid catharsis carries it off. Laura Jane Grace is a wise, angry adult and an eternal teenager. She’s cynical and she’s optimistic. Is there an artist better equipped to take us beyond this cursed year?
‘Stay Alive’ is out now.