Each person has their own 2020 story. This year has forced everyone and their neighbour to adapt to a new life with most previous plans put on hold. For Laura Jane Grace, it is no different. This year was meant to see her band Against Me! travel the world before hitting the studios to record their eighth record. Obviously that was not to be. Out of work and an empty calendar, vocalist and inimitable frontwoman Laura Jane Grace was left with a dilemma: what to do with all this time? For Grace, the only way to make sense of the chaos was to rest on music.
Opening her archives and scanning the back burner, Laura Jane Grace spent two days at Electrical Audio in Chicago with Steve Albini and Albini alone. The two of them, masked up and socially distanced, recorded this wonderful collection of insights into the mind of one of America’s most consistent punks. More scaled back than her work with Against Me!, ‘Stay Alive’ is an infectious, warm clenched-fisted record that centralises Grace’s voice and tremendous writing ability. It is a rare sub-thirty minute reassurance that maybe things might get better (hopefully).
With fourteen songs making up the tracklisting, ‘Stay Alive’ is a brief but magnetic project. Laura Jane Grace makes a lasting impression in under thirty minutes; a lot of the songs barely make it to the two-minute mark, not that they need it.
By revisiting some older material previously unreleased until now, old songs have been given new life and meaning. ‘Calendar Song’, a mid-tempo, fairly sombre number, sees Grace confront the dreaded feeling of time passing by with nothing to show. “Wish I was going someplace tropical, wish I was going to Portugal” – the line’s escapism would be effective any time, but it holds a far stronger weight in the middle of a pandemic. As for ‘Shelter in Place’, Grace sings: “My own private paradise quarantine is very nice”. A little on the nose, you may think – however she is actually referring to her own self-isolation after some medical treatment at the end of 2018. Propelled by an electronic drum beat, the Phoebe Bridgers-like cut is a real highlight as well.
‘Stay Alive’ serves as a fantastic vehicle to give new purpose to old material. ‘Hanging Tree’ dates back, at least, to December 2017. A scathing attack on Trump, Laura Jane Grace’s wit and prevalence dominates here (“You can’t trust a man with hair like that, Too much deception, no self-conscience”). Performed live a couple times, this record is a natural, and ideal, platform to house the song.
As with the aforementioned ‘Shelter in Place’, Grace fills the scaled-back record with depth through her descriptive, humorous lyricism, or the instrumentation. While most songs are just Grace and Guitar, some pack more than a punch. ‘SuperNatural Possession’ is a proper built-up song; with harmonies and a full band sound, it feels like something Against Me! would positively execute. And with ‘So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Fuck Off’, for ninety seconds Laura Jane Grace brings some punk attitude to the party. The heavily distorted cut is as chaotic as it is entertaining. A song deserved of its eye-catching title.
Album closer ‘Old Friend (Stay Alive)’ serves as a neat encapsulation of what this album is. With Laura Jane Grace putting in a stellar vocal performance, the track exemplifies Grace’s songwriting brilliance. Personal and driven, it is a slower, low-key bookend to an album full of well-written, personal tracks.
Throughout the song, Laura Jane Grace sings “Please stay alive.” In these times, the words ring true. It is something that many can connect to. The words could be applied to several things; in the terms of a pandemic, it could be a plea to someone Grace knows, or it could be something bigger. Music is something Grace has turned to throughout her career and now she needs it most. With this record, she is giving back to the industry that she has worked in for decades. This album is imperfect; it is limited to what it can be when there are only two working in a studio standing apart from each other. The last words on ‘Stay Alive’ you hear are Grace singing, “Please survive”, and for thirty minutes, you believe it just might.