Punk has never really been my thing. And I really can’t stand pop-friendly punk (I distinctly remember back in the ’90s wishing that Blink 182 would die in a fire).
Beyond that, it also feels like I shouldn’t like the whole phenomenon of punk-rocker-making-a-sensitive-acoustic-record albums. It feels like an entire cheat of a genre, the sort of thing that would be sneered at by hip music fans. Except, wouldn’t Elliott Smith’s debut album, Roman Candle, which he recorded on the side while he was in Heatmiser, have fit exactly in that category at the time? And wouldn’t Faithless Street, Whiskeytown’s debut album, which came about when Ryan Adams quit playing punk and started playing country, also sort of fit that description? And since I love both of those albums, and Smith and Adams are two of my favorite artists, don’t I have to admit that this is a genre I like? And wouldn’t that explain why Frank Turner’s Tape Deck Heart has been one of my favorite albums of the last year or so?
Setting aside the question of genre, Turner, much like Smith and Adams, can really write a song. Before he became a musician, Turner studied at a prestigious English prep school and then the London School of Economics. This is a guy who has read a book or two. He spent the early 2000s playing in hardcore punk bands, and then switched his focus to folk.
That’s all the time I’m going to expend talking about Turner’s previous career, because I haven’t gotten that deep into the catalog. I’m mostly concerned with Tape Deck Heart. Sonically, it does a nice job of blending the folk and punk influences—acoustic guitars, confessional songs, but also uptempo, sometimes shouted hooks. It’s the songwriting that really makes this record great, though. First of all, you could easily classify it as a break-up album, and y’all know how much I love those. You can see the brokenheartedness in songs like The Way I Tend to Be, which features a jangly acoustic chord progression that slides high up the guitar neck and then works its way down and lyrics like “And then I catch myself/Catching your scent on someone else/In a crowded space/And it takes me somewhere I cannot quite place.”
And then there’s the song Plain Sailing Weather, which opens with the lyrics, “Just give me one fine day of plain sailing weather/And I can fuck up anything.” Not a lot of explanation needed there.
But Tape Deck Heart is more than a break-up album. It’s an album about growing up, about taking stock of your life as you begin to leave your youth behind. Turner is the same age as I am, and much like me, he seems to have left a swath of destruction in his wake. The lead single and opening track of the album, Recovery, opens with the lyrics “Blacking in and out in a strange flat in East London/Somebody I don’t really know just gave me something/To help settle me down and to stop me from always thinking about you/And you know your life is heading in a questionable direction/When you’re up for days with strangers and you can’t remember anything.” It’s a break-up song, and a song about dulling the pain with substances, and it’s a song that acknowledges that “it’s a long road up to recovery.” But it’s also a hopeful song that features the great line “Broken people can get better if they really want to/Or at least that’s what I have to tell myself if I am hoping to survive.”
That’s not the only song that includes a surveying-the-wreckage narrative. The second song on the LP, Losing Days, includes a verse that goes like so: “And I used to think that I/Would never live past twenty five/And when you think like that, each day/Is a gift if you survive/But I’ve survived too long for my side of the deal/And as I reach that shore I’m not sure how to feel.” As someone who has mostly followed the mantra “live every day like it’s your last”—often to justify my questionable decisions—that’s definitely a sentiment I can relate to.
Of course, the album isn’t entirely serious. A bunch of my favorite tracks appear only on the extended version, and I think they’re worth talking about because they display Turner’s lighter side. There’s We Shall Not Overcome, a quirky play on the folk standard We Shall Overcome that works as a sort of anthem for the freaks and geeks, with its chorus, “The bands I like don’t sell too many records/And the girls I like don’t kiss too many boys/The books I read will never be bestsellers/Yeah, but come on fellas at least we made our choice.”
Then there’s Time Machine, about building a time machine out of a DeLorean (you know he won me over right there). It’s a funny tune about traveling through the years as “an amateur historian,” but one that becomes poignant when he admits he’s really building the machine to go back a couple of years to the beginning of a broken relationship, “Before life quietly dismembered/All the best things about you and I.”
And then there’s the song that I really love the most, an acoustic ditty called Tattoos. I’m not even going to quote any lyrics—just give it a listen.
That’s Turner in a nutshell. His songs are smart and funny and catchy, and it’s easy to find yourself in them—at least if you’re anything like me. Some people don’t get it, and some people don’t care. Some of us, we have tattoos.