Laura Jane Grace’s Stay Alive
Laura Jane Grace is best known for her role as the frontwoman of long-time punk band Against Me and recent side project Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers. While Grace is well known for her acoustic recordings of Against Me songs, this is only her second release as a solo artist (the other being Heart Burns under the name Tom Gabel). This record has something for both longtime fans and new listeners alike. Those who have followed Grace or Against Me will surely be satisfied with this new take on their tried and true formula, while it may also prove a satisfyingly approachable introduction for those who have yet to be captured by Grace’s superb style. Instead of the more aggressively anarchist politics of previous releases, this record sees an artist who is obviously using these songs to explore everything from the global pandemic to sobriety, to being a middle-aged punk.
The first thing one notices about this album is the immense conundrum it poses for those of us (certainly myself included) well versed in the discography of Laura Jane Grace. From the opening acoustic strumming of “The Swimming Pool Song,” it is clear that we have been here before. The singular and clear direction of a guitar coupled with an undulation between sweet melody and raspy choruses is the hallmark of any good punk project. This track would fit squarely within any previous release from Grace and is wonderfully catchy in its own right.
It isn’t until the second track (“The Calendar Song”) that this familiarity dissolves into deeply unfamiliar territory and Stay Alive begins to unfurl. The slow picking is immediately soothing while the smooth and melodic signing will immediately lull you into images of times and places before and beyond the halted pace of the present. It is these images of nostalgia and yearning that fully saturate this record, often conjuring scenes of wandering through an unfamiliar city or enjoying a cup of coffee on a busy city street. These scenes are set by a recurring use of vibrantly named colors and simple strumming patterns, adding a deceivingly relaxing tone. The nostalgia for something other than here and now often meanders into introspection, acting as a catalyst to take stock of past mistakes and indiscretions. It is this inward focus that sets the record apart from past work and gives the sense that this project is a sonic representation of self-reflection and its many growing pains.
Stay Alive is an intensely emotional and personal project, and it is a damn good one. Songs like “The Mountain Song” and “Why Kant I Be You?” feel almost perversely intimate, as if we are peering into the torment and machinations of Grace as she laments past mistakes and attempts to make sense of what they mean for her and for the future. If it isn’t already glaring obvious, I am somewhat enamored with Stay Alive. I am not sure if it is the timely release (free time and constant existential dread feels more pressingly topical) or the obvious evolution of a favorite band of mine, but this album seems monumental. This is Grace at her best and is proof of her enduring relevance to punk and its ever-evolving sonic landscape. If previous releases from Grace and Against Me provided an antagonistic indictment of a crumbling world, Stay Alive is an introspective acceptance of growing older, and an attempt at carving some semblance of coherence amid the destruction. Perhaps the titular exclamation of the album is not as much a plea for survival as it is a stubborn reluctance to stop living.