Text: Susanne van Hooft

Looking back at this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, this image will be dominated by live-stream sessions and small concerts. But when we’re really looking for music that has been inspired by the virus, we’ll probably see less of that. ‘Stay Alive’ by Laura Jane Grace that was released last Friday could be a good example of an album that portrays this feeling of anxiety, distance and the new way of living related to the virus. 

It’s not the case that all the songs on this album are about COVID-19, that’s actually the opposite. There are songs about eating a croissant in Spain and about a river in Glasgow, songs about splitting up, but it is an album that screams to keep living. Mostly to not die. That is also what Grace herself tells us about the album and the way it sounds. Heart-breaking in its simplicity and heart-breaking because it sounds so vulnerable. This feeling is not only caused by Laura’s raw voice, but also by the special process of recording the album. All songs have completely been recorded and edited analogue; no computer has been used. During the recording, which only took two days, only Laura Jane Grace and Steve Albini were presents. What we hear are the recordings of songs that were recorded live. Often only one guitar is used, sometimes drums too as minimal support. You can hear the process; Grace takes her guitar and completely loses herself in the music. It sounds intimately, like it’s been made in her bedroom. The result is bare and honest. The other side of the coin for these stripped down songs is that the songs have to be really strong by themselves to remain intact in this situation and they only are partly. It sounds nice, but after listening to them a few times the truth of that some songs aren’t too good gets revealed, like ‘Hanging Tree’, after hearing it a few times, it’s been quite enough.

Some songs almost sound optimistic, like ‘Mountain Song’, but they invariably have a bitter, almost cynical undertone (‘When I said I loved you I only meant that I ought to’). It’s clear that this woman has had a moved life; born in a wrong body, addicted at 13, haunted by depression. After a lot of albums with a band, this is the first solo album. The plan was to make an album with Against Me! again, but things don’t always go as planned. So the message of this album about this crazy year is one that we probably all recognise: “I’m all fucked up, but I’m alive”.

Big Scary Monsters

Photo: Bente van der Zalm

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