Frank Turner: the poverty-stricken man’s Billy Bragg. Okay, that’s a bit harsh, but even as someone who likes a significant amount of Turner’s solo output, his canonisation as a voice of the alternative youth doesn’t sit well. He’s written some superb songs, but when looking back in ten or twenty years time, it’s doubtful Frank Turner will be seen as a pivotal figure in the musical world.
Five albums into his post-Million Dead career and Turner is currently at a peak on his personal timeline. 2012 saw him headline Wembley Arena to a sold-out audience of 12,000, perform at the London Olympics pre-show, last album England Keep My Bones certified as silver, and he’s a immoveable fixture on festival line-ups around the world. But he’s lucky all this came before Tape Deck Heart, because on the evidence of these twelve songs, he’s nowhere near deserving of grabbing such high brass rings.
Before diving into the deep end of what’s wrong with Tape Deck Heart, there are a few highlights to mention. The muted emo-rock of “Plain Sailing Weather” and the switch from music hall piano number to 100mph punk on “Four Simple Words” are top-drawer, whilst “Anymore” is the pinnacle, turning in a gentle acousit ballad reminiscent of Fionn Regan. Album closer “Broken Piano” impresses too, super-sizing the usual FT formula to fit those giant stages he has to play.
But large parts of the record feel almost as artificial as Mumford & Sons’ studied folksiness; the mandolin augmentations to Turner’s usual sound (Mumford bagsied the banjos), the rousing crescendos, the jarring, incongruous “dear”s and “darling”s. But Turner’s been doing this middle-class Troubadour schtick for almost eight whole years, and if you chucked every one of his songs into a playlist and hit shuffle, there’d be little to differentiate between songs released in 2006 and those released in 2013. This could be twisted into a positive element, as a few too many bands strive to drastically change their sound from album to album instead of letting things grow and evolve organically, but five albums in a row with only nominal musical development is ridiculous.
Turner’s lyrics aren’t really evolving either. Addressing us directly as listeners, references to shows and gigs, and similar devices are all big no-nos in this writer’s mind. They take you out of the moment, swapping the escapism music often delivers with a metaphorical sharp stick which jabs you in the side, reminding you that you’re simply listening to one song out of billions, spending three minutes of your dreary little life listening Frank Turner. You poor bastard.
“Four Simple Words” is the worst offender of all. Rhyming “very” with “century” Spat references to Shoreditch hipster bands? Sleeping on people’s floors? Bands working hard and earning their keep? It just comes off as amateurish, petulant and bitter. Frank, mate, you’re an extremely successful musician, you should be above complaining about this sort of inconsequential shit. Your hero and forebear Mr Bragg used his music to talk about important societal matters, he wasn’t pandering with lyrics about “the kids who never fit in with the rest”. British music could really do with someone saying something about, well, anything; the shitty economy, the shitty politicians, the shitty state of society? They’re all fertile soil in which to sow the basis for lyrics. England Keep My Bones was an album that was quite passionate about English heritage and culture (but not in an extreme way), so you’d think Turner would have something to say two years down the lane, with the omnishambles occurring every second?
Nope. While they can be good a lot of the time, songs about fucking up and/or having a good time are dime a dozen, and Turner’s have none of the wit, heart, humour or power of The Gaslight Anthem or The Hold Steady. Why on earth do people savage Taylor Swift for writing break-up songs when Frank Turner is giving us The Middle-Class White Boy Blues every two years or so?