After returning from a tour this past March with Against Me!, the band she’s fronted for the past two-plus decades, Laura Jane Grace found herself with songs she and her band had been working on but, due to a worldwide pandemic, could now only be recorded solo. Grace booked four days with Steve Albini at his Electric Audio studio in Chicago, and the results culminated in the fourteen tracks that make up her latest release, Stay Alive.
With a vocal style reminiscent of an angrier and more adamant John Darnielle, Laura charges in, using only a passionately strummed acoustic guitar as accompaniment, with “The Swimming Pool Song”. Here, Laura analogizes herself to an empty swimming pool that, although presently unusable, will one day be full again. The opening salvo smartly works as both an instant attention-grabber due to its visceral rawness and as a powerful, universally relatable metaphor for our current circumstances. The sublime “The Calendar Song” is a standout that finds Grace ruminating over the places she’s traveled to and the places she wishes she were going. The song’s poignant chorus delivers an important message about time well spent when she sings, “How long you been gone? How long you got left? Only a fool would live their life like that.”
“Shelter in Place” is the first of only a handful of songs on Stay Alive that add percussive instrumentation to the mix. Over a pulsing Casio-esque beat, Grace strums upbeat chords and sings sarcastically, “My own private paradise, quarantine is very nice.” None of the songs on Stay Alive are long, the closest, “The Mountain Song”, coming in at exactly three minutes. The album’s centerpiece, “SuperNatural Possession”, is also its most rocking. In barely two minutes, Laura grinds out a moment that wouldn’t sound out of place on a classic rock radio station next to songs by AC/DC and Thin Lizzy. One of Stay Alive’s most memorable moments arrives with “Hanging Tree”, a song that takes direct aim at Donald Trump and the hypocrisy of Christians who support him. “God is good, and God is great, now get the fuck out of the USA!” Grace shouts as she angrily articulates the irony of the current administration’s divisive rhetoric.
Stay Alive’s last trio of songs give rise to hope amid the many horrors of life in 2020. The simple “Blood & Thunder” is a love song that mixes images of travel and nature with feelings of endearment and tenderness. The pop punky “So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Fuck Off” zips through in just over a minute and a half with the majority of lyrics being, “Goodbye and good riddance.” The record is concluded with “Old Friend (Stay Alive)”, a beautifully composed acoustic ballad that cleverly takes advantage of Laura Jane’s vocal strengths, alternating between her rhythmically hypnotic lyricism and the building-to-a-shout chorus of, “Please stay alive! Please survive!”
It’s only fitting that a concept album of this scope and fieriness be born of the situation we’ve all found ourselves in this year. Laura Jane Grace’s Stay Alive is an exceptional document of one musician’s mined introversion set to music and offered up in order to connect and commune, however remotely, with all of us. Stay Alive is a record reflective of the times and the people living through them.