On paper, there’s something that seems a bit – for lack of a better word – redundant about a Laura Jane Grace solo album. She’s always brought a rawness and profound honesty to her work in Against Me!, particularly in the last few years, and with 2018’s Bought To Rot released under her The Devouring Mothers side-project serving as a slightly lighter, alt-rock-focused palate-cleanser, she’s effectively made her presence known within the usual ground that projects like this tend to cover. Especially when compared to Against Me!, there’s the danger of having such an unshakable formula watered down if this is just another approximation of that. But at the same time, Grace’s consistent excellent across all of her projects speaks for itself, and there’s definitely a slant that’s been taken on Stay Alive that earmarks it as its own thing, or at least separate from everything else. The fact that it’s both a surprise release and a quarantine album immediately brings the scope of it all right down, and being credited to Grace on her own only shines the spotlight more intensely on her alone. Just from the vibe this release gives off, it feels different; perhaps in the grander scheme of Grace’s catalogue this isn’t one of the more important works, but releasing it right now, and in the way it has been, feels necessary.
As a result, Stay Alive is without a doubt a product of the environment it was created in. It’s slight and fragmented, with a miniscule scale that gives the impression of being recorded in a living room rather than any sort of professional studio. It’s also very deliberately imperfect and removed from any of Grace’s work to date, mostly because Stay Alive feels more focused on where she’s at right now. For songs that have been in the bag for the last two years, they offer a remarkably prescient look at where the mental state of effectively the entire world is currently at, and for an album that’s light on Grace’s usual swing-for-the-fences moments, that can connect really well.
If nothing else, it makes sense that Stay Alive is very flighty in tone, shifting between emotions to mirror how crushingly depressing everything can be, and how the only weapon to suitably combat it is the impetus to rise above it. Naturally Grace’s own ennui takes the form of self-examination (the very first line of the album is “I am a haunted swimming pool, I am emptied out and drained”), holding onto memories of all the places she’s visited before crashing back down to reality, where a track like Mountain Song outlines just how draining the stupor can be when the boredom, loneliness and inability to do anything actually set in. There’s also the matter of the rest of the world that seems to be burning itself down in tandem that exacerbates that overwhelm, particularly on the album centerpiece Hanging Tree as a summation of the constant state of disrepair that just seems to be accepted as the new normal. On the flip side though, there’s the need for positivity more than ever; it’s the overall theme of the album embodied in its title and the central feeling of commonality the runs through the lyrics, bookended by the album closer Old Friend (Stay Alive), where the need to survive and get through this is so much greater than whatever temporary obstacles might be in the way. It’s the sort of feel-good ending that mightn’t typically be associated with Grace, but that instead comes from Blood & Thunder, an amendment to The Devouring Mothers’ song I Hate Chicago that sees Grace put her gripes and complaints aside, and find the beauty around her in a way that only insurmountable odds and unprecedented times can reveal.
It’s the sort of ground-level, insular stuff that’s usually expected from an album like this, especially when the writing is, without question, its most important factor. Of course, Grace is enough of a vastly talented songwriter to remain consistory engaging, with a strong, strident voice that keeps the punk spirit as indelible as ever. As such, it’s not really an album that demands much evaluation when it comes to the instrumentation, mostly because it’s primarily comprised of spare acoustic guitars with the occasional drum machine, and sometimes a louder electric guitar to fill out the mix. Honestly, they’re probably the least impressive moments on the album, not only because there’s a generally feeling of redundancy to them within an album designed to be as small as possible, but because they don’t sound all that great. SuperNatural Possession might have a bit of classic rock swagger but its riff is phenomenally flat, with So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Fuck Off has a scraping, compressed mix that shows off some of the more prevalent limitations of Steve Albini’s production style. Really, there’s nothing all that wrong with the sole elements being Grace and an acoustic guitar; it can be both fittingly vulnerable and pick up a quicker rollick when it needs to, and it doesn’t get in the way of lyrics that are the most important thing here. It’s a no-frills approach, but it’s where Stay Alive works the most, and trying to pile on additional guitars or distracting stiff programmed percussion can take away from that.
At the end of the day though, Stay Alive has a very distinct purpose in mind, and Grace fulfills that with flying colours. What it lacks in dynamism is made up for in songwriting that has a lot of heart and intelligence, factors that Grace has always wonderfully displayed and it’s no different here. It’s definitely not as essential as her work with Against Me! or even The Devouring Mothers’ album, something that might hold back its replayability down the road, but right now, in the climate that it lives in and is looking to explore, it’s a potent piece of work that has some real tangible moments of relatability. It’s rare that an artist can pull that off without coming across as mawkish or out of their depth, but that’s something that’s always been a huge strength of Grace’s, and it’s where Stay Alive finds its feet the most solidly.
For fans of: Tim Barry, Chuck Ragan, Brian Fallon
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Stay Alive’ by Laura Jane Grace is out now on Big Scary Monsters.