Laura Jane Grace grapples with modern times on the urgent, stripped-down Stay Alive | Music Review | Chicago Reader

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Laura Jane Grace grapples with modern times on the urgent, stripped-down Stay Alive

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Lockdown has been hard on Laura Jane Grace. The front woman of Against Me! and Devouring Mothers is a natural performer with a strong social-media presence, but lately her Twitter account has been full of laments for the pre-pandemic live-music experience. On October 1, she surprised her fans with Stay Alive, a raw, stripped-down acoustic solo album. Recorded live (and strictly analog) over four days with Steve Albini at Electrical Audio, it features only Grace’s voice and guitar and occasionally a drum machine. Grace told Rolling Stone that she rarely used more than two takes, and that she and Albini wore protective face masks throughout the sessions. Though the songs on Stay Alive sound fresh and timely, some were written as far back as 2017, intended for an Against Me! album. The geographical distance between the band members made recording them as an ensemble impossible, but as Grace grappled with her own mortality in the early months of the pandemic, she felt an urgency to put them out into the world in a format that would last longer than a livestream. She also wrote material during the crisis, including the haunting, elegiac album closer, “Old Friend (Stay Alive).” Grace opens the album’s first track, “The Swimming Pool Song,” with a vivid image of despair (“I am a haunted swimming pool / Emptied out and drained”) and concludes it on a more hopeful note (“This only feels like the death of everything”). The jaunty “Shelter in Place” (retitled during the COVID crisis) took shape in 2018, when Grace was daydreaming about Gibraltar during part of her recovery from surgery. “There’s always someone dying to leave / Where you’re dying to get to,” she sings. Stay Alive also confronts the sickness in American culture and politics. The raging “Hanging Tree” sounds very much like an Against Me! anthem, taking aim at you-know-who by suggesting “you can’t trust a man with hair like that” and then surging into a furious chorus about “a burning crucifix and a hanging tree.” (I’m looking forward to hearing a crowd sing along with it as much as Grace must be looking forward to playing it onstage.) Even when the man “tweet-tweet-tweeting from a golden tower” is out of office, America’s deep systemic problems and the scars caused by this terrible year will remain. And in light of that, Stay Alive is a soothing balm, because it sounds like reality and sugarcoats nothing; it’s aching and lonely and human.   v

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