Release Date: 01.10.20
Record Label: Big Scary Monster
For Fans Of: Against Me, Chuck Ragan, Tim Barry
Like all of us, Laura Jane Grace’s year was completely derailed in March. Just as she was preparing to head into the studio with Against Me!, the globe went into lockdown leaving the band members spread across the US, unable to record their would-be 8th album.. Yet instead of allowing the material to go to waste, Grace decided to phone her local studio in Chicago, booking time to make a record with the legendary Steve Albini. Finally 2020 has thrown us a surprise that we can embrace with open arms.
The true beauty of Stay Alive is in its simplicity. Being recorded almost entirely on an acoustic guitar and the occasional drum-machine, it feels so raw and urgent, and is made all the more powerful by some incredible songwriting. From the melancholic folk-blues fingerstyle of ‘Mountain Song’ to the pissed-off and scathing political attack of ‘The Hanging Tree’ and even the off-kilter groove of ‘Ice-Cream Song’ this record shows not only the craft, but also the range Grace possesses as an artist, even when armed with minimal equipment. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is merely a collection of demos though. These songs are fully formed and tracks like ‘SuperNatural Possession’ don’t sound too far away from what a full-band version might have become and it shows that there has been a deliberate choice and thought behind how each of these songs are presented.
More than anything, the album sounds like an act of catharsis for Grace who is trying to make sense of the seemingly crumbling world around her. ‘Shelter In Place’ feels equal parts like a longing to be back on the road and a love letter to all the places she has visited, while ‘Swimming Pool Song’ seems to capture the lost and confused feeling everyone sometimes gets when we just aren’t too sure where we are going. Despite initially seeming quite downtrodden Grace quickly flips the track into something much more hopeful as she bellows “I don’t know the source of my faith but I know I will be full again”, setting the tone for the rest of the record; things might not be great right now, but keep going and we can get there. This feeling is best captured on the wonderfully titled ‘So Long, Auf Weidersehen, Fuck Off’ which is simple and yet so liberating by displaying a completely care-free attitude that is so reminiscent of The Ramones. Similarly ‘Calendar Song’ is a rejection of the idea of regret and shows Grace letting go of past mistakes and focusing on moving forward instead.
The true exclamation point to all this comes with final track ‘Old Friend (Stay Alive)’. There are numerous times on the record where you can hear her voice crack and splutter with emotion but it’s this last song which somehow seems even more sincere as we see Laura Jane Grace making a promise to herself to do whatever she needs to just keep going and to stay alive. Obviously in the current situation, it’s a feeling that almost all of us will know all too well..
Being able to make a record with this much range on such short notice and with so few personnel is an achievement within itself. Yet what Stay Alive really shows is further evidence of what a fantastic songwriter Laura Jane Grace has become. As we have heard on recent records with both Against Me, and 2018s Bought to Rot, she might now be taking a more laid-back and often more subtle approach now, but none of the fire has been lost from those early albums. Instead it has been honed and channelled into something that at times can be even more powerful.