Review Summary: Frank Turner is an earnest man, and proves it on this album, even when it's slick...
Sometimes, a record is not about what we think it is about. Sometimes, a record is a subtle nod to something that happened, deep down somewhere, but that we can't talk about because it's not anyone else's business to know what happened. But since we feel it deep down somewhere, earnestly, it's a real song. It's a genuine song. And we need a way to let that out because if we don't we'll keep a few skeletons firmly inside a few closets that we sometimes forget exist but we always come across them when we want it the least.
Frank Turner has a lot of songs like that scattered across his former records, but this record is basically only those songs put together on a single album. For example, "England Keep My Bones" had the beautiful Redemption, with it's pumping power-chord bridge. But that was only one song, and although that record was slick (although not as slick as this one), Frank Turner was still a folk-punk troubadour singing songs about his homeland and staying true to who you are even when you're on the road. He was always earnest about what he thought; libertarian politics, the hardships of touring, the loss of a loved one, that the journey beats the destination; but this album feels more like a personal lament. Frank Turner is not just earnest about what he thinks about life and death; also about what he feels personally, and that is why I think Tape Deck Heart is also a very appropriate title for this record.
But it feels like this album is more about personal relationships, and about things we can all relate to. Not all of us are atheists (although I firmly agree with the sentiment expressed in Glory Hallelujah), and not all of us agree with libertarianism. But we can all agree that "love is about the changes you make and not just three small words", because we've all had those relationships where either party just wasn't willing to pull up stakes. We've all felt like a failure, like we've done it wrong, and we all wish for one day of "Plain Sailing Weather". And Frank may or may not be disingenuous, but to me, his music sounds earnest, and true to his words. And in that, Frank Turner becomes someone you can identify with on a personal level - he seems to be humble and true to himself, in his music and his lyrics. There's something comforting in the idea that someone who plays Wembley and the Olympics has gone through just the same things you did once upon a time.
Fortunately, his songwriting is up to the task. There's something clever and tricksy about Frank's songs - none of them are the epitome of complexity, but they are all subtle and feature little things that make it just that more than a guy with guitars. And when he wrote Love, Ire and Song, this was still underdeveloped because most of the record was just Frank and his guitars. But he's got the Sleeping Souls now, and they add all the nuances that never were in Frank's music before. Yeah, "The Way I Tend to Be" is a slick rock song, and so is "I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous", but there's plenty little fills and musical nuances in the former because the Sleeping Souls are just such a good backing band for what Frank does. If you don't believe it, check out "Four Simple Words" - Queen-punk meets folk, and you sincerely can't pull that kind of song off if you don't have a band that knows what they're doing.
And if he doesn't need them, he ditches them: "Anymore" is just a man with a quiet tinkling guitar weeping over a breakup that didn't end in a flash-bang fight but in a whimper, which is the worst thing I can imagine - a feeling of "this shouldn't be ending, this could have been timeless, but we both know we're in the wrong and we can't do this right now and we both can't tell each other the way we wanted to so drama will only be implied now". And Frank manages to capture that feeling in his lines. You can say that's cheesy, but he makes it real and tangible for those of us who understand what he is trying to say.
Is this Frank coming into his own? Has he lost the punk edge that made his early work what it was, or that he cultivates when he's doing hardcore punk with Mongol Horde? No. He still likes punk rock. He's still a troubadour. And there are places where you can hear that just fine. This album isn't about Frank being something or being not something. This is about earnestly writing about things that affect us all and selling the song in such a way that we can all get behind what Frank is saying, because it's something we feel. We ddidn't recognise it in a book, we didn't see it once in a movie - we've been there and we know what it's about. Frank captures that in earnest simplicity with just the right subtleties to make it less cheesy and all the more real. This is about him delivering a record that brings everything he can bring to the table together with the right production, the right sound, and the right feelings at exactly the right time. That way, the skeletons can finally come out of the closet where we hid them.