It’s difficult to get a handle on Frank Turner’s solo career.
He’s released three full-length albums (and is about to release a fourth), but even right after Love, Ire & Song came out, he was a folk hero, an emotional icon with all the requisite traits: honesty, longing, anger, and an acoustic guitar. This was all with good reason. Although his solo career blossomed in the wake of post-hardcore band Million Dead’s demise, he was more than your typical ideological punk singer turned folk artist right from the start. His songs didn’t feel like acoustic versions of Million Dead songs, and even when he recorded the occasional cover of a Million Dead song, such as “Smiling At Strangers On Trains,” he was able to turn them into completely different works. He was so good that many of the people who started listening to him after Love, Ire & Song didn’t even realize that he was the same skinny kid from Million Dead.
However, his endeavors as of late haven’t received the acclaim that his earlier works did. Most recently, his Rock & Roll EP received criticism and even whispers that Turner was running out of ideas and becoming lazy with his songwriting. Judging the EP critically is difficult because it’s hard to tell whether he really was trying his hardest or if the songs were written with the sole intent of serving the theme of “rock ‘n’ roll.” The latter would seem to be the case, judging by the aesthetics of the five songs. Opener “I Still Believe” relies on a typical rock trope – a repeated melody that provides the song’s backbone – and it, along with “Pass It Along,” is also an ode to rock greats. “Rock & Roll Romance” describes just that. “To Absent Friends” reads like a traditional smoky-barroom tribute to the dearly departed, but instead of being carried by somber piano chords, it’s sped up and played with electric guitars and drums. “The Next Round” is really the only song that feels like it was written by the Frank Turner of old. It too is about an often-heard rock subject – drinking – but the climax is so heart-wrenching that no one could possibly claim that it isn’t genuine.
The songs on the EP are certainly enjoyable and none of them are worth skipping. The same can be said of his third album Poetry Of The Deed, which immediately preceded Rock & Roll. Half of the songs were amazing sing-a-longs (“The Road,” “Try This At Home,” the title track), but some of them were so slow and plodding that they verged on boring (“Journey Of The Magi” comes to mind). Again, all of the songs on that album are enjoyable in their own way, but something is missing from Poetry and Rock & Roll. Turner’s career is still fairly young. That being the case, it’s difficult to ascertain whether or not he’s running out of ideas and becoming lazy, or if he’s just being Frank Turner and his fans can’t see that because of the mythical properties that they’ve ascribed to him. It becomes more difficult when you consider that he’s a part of the folk genre, which is notorious for its lack of progression. The genre relies primarily on songwriting and lyrical prowess, both of which Turner has in spades, but at any rate, he has attempted to progress.
Considering his attempts at progression leads to even more confusion though, and it leads back to the pattern that his music has followed. Sleep Is For The Week, his first album, was led by Turner’s acoustic guitar, but there were plenty of other instruments to keep things interesting (the strings in “Vital Signs,” for example), and great production tricks that differentiated the songs from one another (“A Decent Cup Of Tea” has a fantastic sense of loneliness because of the production). Love, Ire & Song scaled things back instrumentally, but it featured Turner’s best lyrics and songwriting and became the fan favorite. Here’s the confusing part: Poetry Of The Deed is very similar to Sleep Is For The Week. They both feature an abundance of instruments (compared to Love, Ire & Song) and unique songwriting ideas (for folk), and yet Sleep is an infinitely better album.
The obvious conclusion would be to say that Rock & Roll and Poetry Of The Deed lack the same passion as his earlier works. The same has been said of a great deal of musical artists. But that doesn’t fit with the Frank Turner we all know, and although it’s hard to say whether the Frank Turner we all know really is Frank Turner or if he’s just some mythical figure that can’t live up to what he did on his first albums, in the end we have to believe that he can again make a record that we all want to come back to. Pinpointing the exact cause may be impossible, but that was the problem. Poetry Of The Deed did not make us want to come back and listen obsessively to learn all the words. It was a nice album – a great album, even – but it didn’t feel like a Frank Turner album. And that is, of course, infinitely unfair to Frank Turner, who by all accounts lives and dies for his music.
No one can say what goes on in a particular musician’s head as they sit down to write a new album, and given the fact that all of Turner’s albums up to this point have had completely different feels to them, it’s impossible what to predict on England Keep My Bones. We all might want him to find what he lost in the interim between Love, Ire & Song and Poetry Of The Deed, but Frank Turner himself is probably of the mindset that he hasn’t lost a goddamn thing. And maybe we are the ones who need to change.
[England Keep My Bones will be released June 6.]