In the digital age, the live album is, at best an anachronistic, pro forma addition to an artist’s repertoire and at worst a horror show of what your favorite musician sounds like sans studio production.
Back in days of analog, a live album could sonically transport you into the throngs of screaming fans packing a stadium or at a corner table at a show in an intimate boîte. The cheers of the crowd, the lead singer’s stage banter, all captured on the record.
Nowadays, if you want to feel like you’re at a concert, you live stream it, catch it on youtube, or see it from 2000 different perspectives on 2000 different Instagrams. Furthermore, MP3s have removed the warm analog sound of vinyl and digital live albums are often bereft of the digital flourishes, production, and auto-tuning that can be crucial to the album sounding halfway decent. Thus, for most genres, live albums generally fail to their studio counterparts.
Punk however, may be the exception and nowhere is this better illustrated than on Against Me!’s 23 Live Sex Acts.
Perhaps more so than any other genre of music, Punk is best live. The energy is palpable, from the band on down to the moshing crowds. Gritty and lo-fi by nature, the music doesn’t thrive on digital editing or perfect acoustics and thus isn’t hampered by the constraints of capturing live performances.
Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues easily makes the shortlist for most important Punk album of the last half-decade. It’s a musical exploration of gender dysphoria and lead singer Laura Jane Grace’s struggles with identity.
Since the album is so personal, hearing a live recording adds another layer to the experience. Frankly you get more Laura Jane Grace when she’s working it live. She stops the show in the middle of “New Wave” to scream at a security guard for throwing a kid out. You get amended lyrics for Against Me!’s 2005 hit “Pretty Girls (The Mover)” that speak to Grace’s fight with gender dysphoria. Hell, you even get a cover of Blatz’s “Fuk Shit Up.”
The crowd also works its way onto being a character on the album. They sing along to “True Trans Soul Rebel,” chanting the chorus that ends with “God bless your transsexual heart.” This provides some resolution to Transgender Dysphoria Blues. The album deals with struggle, alienation, and confusion. Hearing the crowd enthusiastically echo Grace’s lyrics shows that she’s found acceptance at the end of her coming out.
Through a mixture of genre, personality, sonic texture, and subject matter, 23 Live Sex Acts lands in the fickle sweet-spot where necessary live albums reside. If you’re going to buy only one live recording this year—and frankly that’s probably all you’ll need to buy— 23 Live Sex Acts is, by far, your best choice.