Frank Turner’s music represents a number of different things to a number of different people, but the most important one is something they all can agree upon. Honesty. Whether he’s being political, personal, national, literary or romantic, it’s the singer’s integrity and strength of conviction that is most captivating and has allowed the self-proclaimed Wessex boy to assume a number of identities without ever really risking the loyalty of his followers. Still, while Frank Turner can never be accused of being inauthentic, he certainly has had some difficulty with balancing his two most dominant personas. Is he the confessional storyteller, armed only with guitar, wit and a folk tradition he has never quite fully embraced? Or is he the brash and bold, crowd-pleasing rabble-rouser, raised on punk rock and determined to deliver the same rallying anthems of chorus and catharsis that have defined so many of our formative and early adult years?
With Tape Deck Heart Frank Turner has managed to negotiate these two opposing roles and has come up with his most complete work to date. Every element of song writing seems fully formed and realised and demonstrates both Turner’s renowned lyrical heft with his ability to forge immediately memorable rock songs. It’s not quite a perfect album, and it’s let down by a few technical and stylistic quandaries that will be familiar to long-time listeners. Still, Tape Deck Heart is Turner’s finest work since his career turning point Love Ire and Song and, for whatever else, presents a songwriter and bandleader fully in command and control of his medium.
As with a lot of Turner’s work, Tape Deck Heart tends to oscillate between broadly universal anthems and deeply personal admissions, and the album begins by focusing on the former. The first four songs, “Recovery,” “Losing Days,” “The Way I Tend to Be” and “Plain Sailing Weather” all fit together nicely as a suite of self-effacing folk-pop, and while the first three exude a hopeless joy it’s only during the last of these tunes that we are reminded of the darker, more destructive aspects of Turner’s writing. “Just give me one fine day of Plain Sailing Weather and I can fuck up anything, anything,” Turner exclaims, and it is at this point we move into the more intimate (but all the more affecting) territory of love’s trials, losses and failures.
There are two tracks on this album where I had to rewind to catch the words again and “Good and Gone” is one of them. Of course, it would be a good thing indeed if women stopped breaking this man’s heart but then I wonder if we would get lines as touching and relatable as “I have searched for you in the darkness of a dozen dingy dancehalls” or as exquisitely blunt as “fuck you Hollywood for teaching us that love was free and easy.” “Good and Gone,” along with the magisterial “Broken Piano,” are the clear album standouts for me, as they best demonstrate Turner’s ability to write music that articulates feelings you yourself could not find the words for, it makes you nostalgic for memories you never had and yet feel all the more familiar.
As previously mentioned, Tape Deck Heart suffers the same problems that have blighted Turner’s earlier efforts and these will be presented here. As a singer Frank Turner has always got by on sheer grit and verve as opposed to technical proficiency but there are moments on the album where he does struggle – particularly on the aforementioned “Broken Piano” where an attempt at falsetto prevents the otherwise brilliant track from being a total masterpiece. It should also be stated that while Turner has dropped his somewhat tedious references to Dylan, Springsteen and his all-too earnest love of “the road,” there are still times when the writing, at least thematically, feels hackneyed and stilted, exemplified by the underwhelming “Polaroid Picture” or the simply bland “Anymore.” Again, as with England Keep My Bones, I can’t help but feel that these songs would work better as bonus tracks, especially when the album’s actual bonus tracks (“We Shall Not Overcome,” “Tattoos” and “Wherefore Art Thou Gene Simmons” for instance) are so much finer by comparison.
Tape Deck Heart is a great album and, with the extra songs, Frank Turner’s best yet. The songs carry a palpable weight; an organic, lived-in feeling that only comes from musicians who have toured endlessly and tirelessly on the material because doing so fulfills a function, a need – because, one expects, they would not want to (nor could) do anything else. Frank Turner and The Sleeping Souls are at the top of their game right now and are only pushing higher, onward and upward. Too big to fail? Too tough to quit.