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Monday, June 20, 2011

Frank Turner - England Keep My Bones: A+

Can an album be a classic if it only references the past? We like to think of the classics – the A+’s, the five stars, the two thumbs ups – as groundbreaking releases that change how we think about music and become highly influential for generations to come. But what if an artist stops trying to be ahead of the curve and instead enjoys the curve wash over them like a sonic wave? If an album takes the influences that have amassed over the past fifty years and turns them into songs that make you laugh and cry as hard those very same influences, does it still deserve to be called a “classic album”?

I wonder this, because the two greatest albums of the decade thus far, Titus Andronicus’s The Monitor and Frank Turner’s England Keep My Bones, do just that. They keep their influences so prominently on their sleeves that they could wear t-shirts and be warm all year round, referring to their heroes explicitly in songs about personal triumph and crippling defeat. In “I Am Disappeared”, Turner wrestles with dreams of “pioneers, pirate ships and Bob Dylan.” He contemplates running away from the responsibilities of his life, and, when he does, none other than Bob himself arrives to whisk him away. The heart wrenching guilt in abandoning a lover in “Redemption” is triggered by a Springsteen song coming on in Turner, the scorner’s, head phones. These influences are fused with the very roots of the stories told on England Keep My Bones. It’s hard to say whether the album would exist, let alone be as affecting, without them.

Many not so explicitly stated influences arise while listening to England Keep My Bones. In a higher register, Turner’s voice sounds like The Decemberists’ Colin Melloy. Coupled with England’s folk influences, valid comparisons can be drawn to the group’s most recent album, The King Is Dead. Turner’s tumbling cadence in “Redemption” immediately brings to mind the stream-of-consciousness poetry of The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn. “Penny Sang the Blues”, at its poppiest moments, even sounds like standard Third Eye Blind. And yet none of these references have made A+ records. What occurs on England Keep My Bones is Turner takes these relatively generic sounds and distills them into the greatest product they can be. Turns out that product approaches perfection.

England Keep My Bones is divided thematically in pairs. You have the sadness of “I Am Disappeared” and “Redemption” and the uplift of “Penny Sang the Blues” and “I Still Believe”. You have loyal hometown pride (“Wessex Boy”, “Rivers”) and middle fingers of defiance (“Eulogy”, “One Foot Before The Other”). The album seems to be at odds with the transition from skuzz punk to respectable adult, and these pairs underscore the radical division within Turner’s current lifestyle. If it sounds like I’m describing a transitionary record, then England Keep My Bones may be the best of its kind, because it perfectly encapsulates the insecurity that can come with entering a new chapter of life, and the shifts in Turner’s lyrics and tone is indicative of this.

Thankfully, England Take My Bones flows despite this. From track to track, Turner assumes different personas, but his wry sense of humor and passion for performance shine through with no exceptions. The cathartic introduction of “Eulogy” (“I haven’t always been a perfect person / I hadn’t done what mom and dad had dreamed / But on the day I die I’ll say ‘At least I fuckin’ tried’/ That’s the only eulogy I need”) is followed by “Peggy Sang the Blues”, an ode to Turner’s late grandmother, whose ghost visits him at night to play poker and impart elderly wisdom. It’s a drastic transition, especially looked at through the lens of familial piety, but Turner’s personality remains a constant throughout, even as the music changes from jagged distortion to pop rock polish. Then come the raucous revivalism of “I Still Believe” (“I still believe/ In the saints / Yeah Jerry Lee and Johnny and all the greats”), the acoustic homeliness of “Rivers”, and so on and so forth. All these songs have vastly different mission statements, but Turner brings his all to each subject, making each track its own fluid dialogue.

“I Am Disappeared” and “Redemption” particularly distinguish England Take My Bones, though. The lyrical resonance of the former has already been noted, but its musical accompaniment is just as devastating. A snare is hit at the word “gone” in “She can get up shower in half an hour she’d be gone,” and more instrumentation comes in as Turner shifts narration from a distressed mother to himself. “I keep having dreams of needing things to do / And then waking up and not following through,” he sings, relaying a self-critique that makes Turner’s escape all the more futile as he finds that he cannot escape himself.

“Redemption” hits even harder, because we observe Turner’s self-loathing for abandoning a lover due to his fear of commitment. Solemnly, Turner admits, “The sad truth is that the grass it will always seem greener / So I left you alone in a restaurant in London in winter / You deserved better.” Later, as that Springsteen song triggers a shame spiral, Turner hollers on the bridge with an emotional intensity unmatched on the rest of the album. The sympathy becomes unbearable when we hear him rummage through his diary to find that the day he crumbled would have been the date of their anniversary. Then the track climaxes and Turner tries to redeem himself with another verse, but ultimately fails as he concludes, “I don’t think I can do this” before the song abruptly ends.

And so begins “Glory Hallelujah”, the last song on the album. The track will probably come to define England Keep My Bones for its lyrical content, of which I’ll let Turner explain: “Hey everybody have you heard the news? / The storm has lifted and there’s nothing to lose / So swap your confirmation for your dancing shoes / Because there never was no God.” The song turns an admission of Godlessness into a celebration of mortality. Even if you disagree with Turner’s message (you’re in the majority if you do), you have to hand it to the guy for pumping so much melody into such a controversial song, saving all his best hooks so he can best drive that point home. It’s the best song on England Take My Bones, so I’m content that it will be the most noticed. Its communal catharsis is brilliantly executed and fits perfectly as you turn the album back to “Eulogy” to listen to the album once again. However, considering England Keep My Bones perfectly encapsulates that daunting midpoint between adult and ruffian, it’s not like you needed another excuse.


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