Frank Turner, who once sang “music, it’s my substitute for love” (on “Substitute,” from 2008’s Love Ire & Song), now turns to music as not only his escape from the tribulations and fallout from heartbreak, but as a type of therapy session.
On his fifth album, Turner expands on the brusque, urgent poetry he’d adopted from punk rock, turning to a style more in line with the contemporary folk-rock of Josh Ritter or Glen Hansard: candid, exposed and somber.
This well-worn ground is new territory for Turner, and though he handles it his own way, it’s stepping away from the enthusiastic, invigorating and inspiring niche he’s carved out near the mantle occupied by the late, revered Joe Strummer and the restless elder statesman Billy Bragg. The UK singer/songwriter responsible for the admirable defiance conveyed in the lines “I won’t sit down / I won’t shut up / Most of all I won’t grow up” now tackles the fears that he might be doing just that.
In the opening song—and first single—“Recovery,” Turner describes a breakup’s aftermath as a questionable tumble of disorienting mornings, waking in strange flats and spending days drinking/drugging with strangers.
“I’m as lost as lost can be,” Turner sings, searching for truth, direction and ultimately, a tomorrow that doesn’t repeat the hell of the current day. As much as the album is about heartbreak and change, it’s about putting oneself back together again, taking survey of what’s left and what’s on the horizon, even while sorting the ongoing twinges of pain into what’s momentary and what’s lasting.
As a single, “Recovery” is relatable and catchy, with musical pep and harmonies from the Sleeping Souls (Ben Lloyd, Tarrant Anderson, Matt Nasir and Nigel Powell), a band that thrives in spilling forth punk-rock energy, but with the chops to step into the neo-folk world.
“Losing Days” follows, with Turner singing about a broken body and broken spirit: “These days I’m collecting scars don’t seem to fade, cuts and bruises that won’t go away.” In reflecting on the reality of aging, the song offers up imagery about the physical side of things—the creeping aches and pains, the hangovers that linger longer—as well as the internal, emotional side. Turner sings about getting his first tattoo, of being scared and proud as his young self takes on a monumental personal moment. But after many more—even getting tattoos out of boredom—that faded thrill itself becomes a metaphor for losing days.
Riding an incongruously bright mandolin riff, “The Way I Tend to Be” suggests that maybe all these problems are inherent. Carried to its logical conclusion, that as the result of a flawed character, trouble is inevitable and endless, that notion is one of the darkest moments on the record. Yet Turner twists the song into more of a plea for help, calling on a love to come and save him.
“Four Simple Words” opens with a piano flourish, Turner singing right to the listener, teaching his fans a chorus well ahead of time so they can sing it back during a show: “I want to dance.” Then, at 86 seconds, with a machine gun drum solo, the song turns a punk corner, as if Turner is saying this is the proper sound for yearning, for getting ready to shake it. The song shifts to lyrics that celebrate his old days, when “home” was being out at a punk rock show, “A few precious hours in a space of our own.”
It’s clear how much those formative years still matter to Turner, the purpose and the togetherness, finding common ground with all the other kids who never fit on. Singing about bands “sleeping on the floor on a stranger’s place,” Turner echoes almost the same imagery from the album’s opening tune, but here it’s rendered as noble rather than wasted energy.
In a career that he’s built on self-reliance and the implausible path from hardcore singer to road-weary troubadour, Turner has developed an exhilarating live show and a tight, personal connection with audience. He’s clearly earned the bigger stage of a major record label. Based on Turner’s talent alone, his career hasn’t peaked thus far, and nor will it with this album.
To some, Tape Deck Heart might suffer from the transition to bigger production values. Recording with producer Rich Costey, Turner had triple the studio time of any other record. It’s certainly a cleaner record than long-time Turner fans would probably prefer. But given the subject matter, the sound and production make for a reasonable fit.
The trouble isn’t with Turner’s songwriting overall—Tape Deck Heart has more than its fair share of strong songs. The trouble is the absence of the sort of fist-pumping anthem that earned Turner so many fans to begin with. Songs like “Photosynthesis,” “I Still Believe” and “The Road” are quotable, tatttooable even, far more than anything on Tape Deck Heart.
In “I Still Believe,” his ode to rock ‘n’ roll from 2011’s England Keep My Bones, Turner sings “So just remember folks we not just saving lives, we’re saving souls and we’re having fun.”
That fun isn’t absent from Tape Deck Heart, but it’s often subdued by the subject matter. On the half-full side, it’s an album built around the themes of change and recovery. On the half-empty side, it’s about loss, heartbreak and darkness. The truth is, Turner covers all that and more, in a deeply personal way.