Hole in My Head is not the first solo album by Laura Jane Grace since her long-time band Against Me! went on an indefinite hiatus, but it marks the first album since she publicly acknowledged that hiatus. For years now, we have been expecting these solo albums to serve as place-fillers until Grace and her bandmates in Against Me! got back into the studio to record a new album. Now we know that a new Against Me! album isn’t coming anytime soon.
That’s fine because Grace’s solo material has been consistently as outstanding as anything her band put out, but it has also had a distinctly different feel from Against Me!, with more slow, acoustic, indie-folk guitars that resembled neither the folk-punk of early Against Me! or the more pop-oriented trajectory that they had been on for the latter-half of the band’s career.
That all changes with Hole in My Head, which not only marks Grace’s strongest solo effort out of a catalogue of great solo material, but also marks the first time since Bought to Rot that she’s really had the sound of a full band behind her, thanks in a large part to the contributions of Drive-By Truckers’ bassist Matt Patton who rounds out the sound on much of this album. The result is an album that still has some of that indie-folk of Stay Alive and At War With the Silverfish, but also has some of the pop-punk structures seen on Against Me! albums like New Wave, White Crosses, and Shape Shift With Me.
The album kicks off with the short but very sweet title track, which is a tight and compact little punk tune that sounds like it was plucked straight off of White Crosses. The song expresses frustration around feeling intense emotions, while at the same time acknowledging the necessity of expressing your genuine self. “I’m Not a Cop,” with its borderline-doo-wop style rhythm and backing vocals, is a hilariously bitter song that takes gloriously fun shots at the police.
“Dysphoria Hoodie” is definitely a folk punk track, but a distinctly different type of folk punk than anything off of Against Me!’s Reinventing Axl Rose. With Grace alone on an acoustic guitar, the song has a lot of negative space that leaves plenty of room to hear Grace’s stark poetry about what gender dysphoria feels like. “Birds Talk Too” then gives us a catchy and fun pop love song reminiscent of Against Me!’s “Crash.”
“Punk Rock in Basements” is the record’s catchiest song, paying tribute to Grace’s house show days (which haven’t entirely ended, to be honest) with perfect pop hooks and spirited hand claps. Then “Cuffing Season” slows things back down with one of the most somber tracks on the album, producing the record’s most haunting melodies. But no song on the album quite matches the emotional intensity of “Mercenary,” where Grace rips the chorus out of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” and throws it into a blender with The Pixies to deeply cathartic effect.
As Grace sings the chorus on “Hard Feelings” of “Oh mother, mother, mother I’ve ruined my brain with alcohol, weed, porn, and cocaine,” it’s hard to not find the hook to be both a bit humorous and poignant at the same time. Then “Give Up the Ghost” finishes out the album, once again, with Grace alone on an acoustic guitar for the record’s powerful emotional dénouement.
On Hole in My Head, Laura Jane Grace manages to create a work of art that shows, for the first time in a while, the range of sounds that she had with her band. With the realization that Grace’s solo career will be her only output for the foreseeable future comes, in this record, the most definitive confirmation of her solo career thus far that she doesn’t need Against Me! to be able to create great music anymore. Just like in the heart-wrenching chorus of the album’s final track, Grace is screaming at all of us, “I’m not done!”