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Laura Jane Grace - Stay Alive (Album Review)

Thursday, 15 October 2020 Written by Huw Baines

Photo: Alexa Viscius

It’s tempting to see an album like Laura Jane Grace’s ‘Stay Alive’ as back-to-basics—it’s a collection of largely acoustic first or second takes recorded on analogue equipment. But there’s no ‘basic’ right now. Everything is difficult, inconvenient or frightening. In that light an apparently simple record becomes forthright and frequently remarkable.

With any plans for future Against Me! releases or touring scratched by the Covid-19 pandemic, Grace corralled her recent writing into a tracklist, rehearsed the songs in her bathroom until she knew them off book, and set off for Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio. With a legendary engineer making sure things were copacetic on a technical level, she was free to capture performances that could add meat to bare bones.

‘Stay Alive’ is in many ways an underlining of existing strengths. The piercing words, the way Grace bites down on a hook, and the way she shortens syllables to add a melodic flourish, have been in place for years.

But they hit differently here because of their isolation from her usual mode of address. The gentle presentation of these songs deliberately eschews the sweat, effort and euphoria of an Against Me! show in a manner that feels like a hard truth that needs to be heard.

The temptation in a moment such as this would be to go the full ‘Nebraska’ with an eight track recorder on deck and a desolate sense of introversion on tap. But the clean, precise hooks of Calendar Song—an apparent lament for the places we’ve been and things we’ve seen—benefit from the sharp, fuzz-free rendering of Grace’s guitar and the unfussy presentation of her voice.

Similarly, a few new wave flecks (Shelter in Place) and a sideline in Clash-esque stomp (Supernatural Possession) add a celebratory edge to proceedings that feels necessary. ‘Stay Alive’ is an album of its time, but it’s not an album that wallows in the demands presented by its time. From conception through to execution, it’s about pushing back and turning to something that has provided comfort on both sides of 2020’s great divide.

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