In an ideal world, this record wouldn’t be. If all went to plan, the songs that form Stay Alive would exist, but in a strikingly different format. But of course, here we are. Whilst she was originally intending to record another long play with Against Me! this year, the punk mainstay that is Laura Jane Grace found herself isolated and distanced from her bandmates both in Against Me! and The Devouring Mothers as the coronavirus pandemic engulfed the world and put an end to normality. With a record’s worth of material – work penned over the course of two years - written and ready to be recorded, Grace was given with two options; let the work wilt or adapt. And adapt she did. Released this week is Stay Alive, arguably the first solo record from Laura Jane Grace and a record that embodies its namesake in every way possible.
Recorded straight to tape under the waning full moon and aided by legendary producer Steve Albini, Stay Alive came into creation in near isolation, with both Grace and Albini working constantly six feet apart and donning masks during the creation process. A minimalist and nigh-on strange way to record a full length, but what transpires is a bare-bones record that allows every nuance of Grace’s songwriting and talent as a storyteller to take full form. Across the 14 tracks present, Grace narrates tales and experiences ranging from gnarly LSD induced trips, the vistas of the astral oceans and the sights and scenes her endless travels have gifted her. It may be the uncertainty of the times seeping into the mix, but these tracks serve as quick consecutive blasts of free-spirited musical honesty and catharsis, exorcising the doubt of anxiety and offering insightful escapism in the form of personal narration.
Immediately, the borderline folk ambience and intimacy takes form. Accompanied by a trusty companion in the form of a well travelled guitar, Grace weaves stories of her life, woes, fears and frustrations in a raw thematic manner in which only she can. Granted, Grace has always had a renowned knack of narrating her experiences with vivid prose, but the exposed and intimate nature of this record truly showcases her skills as a storyteller. The quiet rural lullaby of ‘Mountain Song’ mixes her mental anguish with imagery of silent mountain ranges, ‘Swimming Pool Song’ see’s her painting portraits of mental drain via the sights of drained pools and the embers of torched churches and the carbonated electric fizzle of ‘Supernatural Possession’ see’s her discussing perpetual uncertainty with ghostly imagery.
Throughout all of this, Grace narrates with exposed honesty, almost thinking aloud like one would do when ponderously questioning the nature of oneself when sat in the evaporating heat of the bath. With the record feeling more or less like a series of live recordings, one can truly appreciate her richly illustrated lyricism and the emotional urgency that underpins her words. This becomes evident with the country-akin stroll of ‘Shelter In Place’, where Grace mares ruminations her far travels and her current isolation before realising the solo quietness of now has gifted her with introspection.
Even with the record being an exercise in using illustrative storytelling to expel her bottled emotions and tales, Stay Alive bristles with positivity and strong optimism. Whilst many of Grace’s musical endeavours have been combative in nature, this record see’s her appreciating the small joys of life. Be that enjoying the warmth and companionship of others with ‘Please Leave’, the joys of daydreaming with ‘Ice Cream Song’ or even coming to love a place you once loathed in the instance of ‘Blood & Thunder’; a counterpart to her infamous 2018 track ‘I Hate Chicago’. Of course, venomous political damnation remains, this time in the form of the condemning haste of ‘Hanging Tree’, but for the majority, this record see’s Grace adjusting her scope. With the world spinning out of control on its axis, Grace uses this platform not only as a way of therapy, but to urge one to keep fighting, stay considerate, combat the bullshit, ignore the things that don’t matter – and above all – stay alive.
In all, in an ideal world one would never hear this record. But as the record proclaims, one must accept change, make the best of a lamentable situation and keep proactive. Some may find the minimalist nature of this record slightly mundane, but for the rest of us this is a ceaselessly pleasant deep dive into the inner psyche of a chaotic mind striving for peace and is the quintessential spirit of the ever-enduring soul that is Laura Jane Grace.
Stay Alive is out now via Big Scary Monsters. Purchase the record here.