Monday, August 17, 2015

album review: 'positive songs for negative people' by frank turner

On some level, punk is always going to be a young person's genre. The raw anger, the focus on passion and energy over meticulous craftsmanship, the vitriolic power with maybe the nuance coming later, all of this shows up most in the heady rush of youth. So what happens when a punk grows up and encounters the crushing weight of adulthood?

Well, any number of things happen. Some will keep the faith, some will fade out of the scene naturally, some will even double down and rage all the harder, and some will opt to refine their simple songs into something with a little more weight or maturity or complexity. As such, it's not all that surprising that some punks will drift towards folk rock or rock operas or even alternative country, trading explosive energy for tighter songwriting or more grandiose presentation.

And one of the best examples of that is Frank Turner, who initially started in post-hardcore before going solo and making highly lyrical and yet no less passionate folk rock drenched in the grubby pub tradition that drew upon Celtic folk, disillusioned punk, and even hints of alternative country and piano rock. And there's a lot to really like about his brand of abrasive yet confessional songwriting, his clever knack for a great hook, and his eclectic hodgepodge of influences that are half tongue-in-cheek and yet often completely sincere. For me, my favourite album of Turner's is easily his second Love Ire & Song, as it felt like it brought the most instrumental flavour and excellently crafted songs to the table while still maintaining that punk edge. If I can find areas where Turner can stumble, it'd be some of his material can get a little sleepy and lacking in momentum, which would probably be the biggest criticism I'd have of his third album, or that his newest albums can occasionally feel a tad too polished, especially in his vocals. But none of that was going to stop me from reviewing his newest album Positive Songs For Negative People - does it live up to its title?

See, it's funny: Positive Songs For Negative People is the sort of record that would normally kind of exasperate me, because it represents Turner's biggest, broadest, and most uncomplicated record to date, a distilling of his formula into a record with soaring crunch that would play far better in arenas than pubs. The sort of album where if it wasn't for Turner's adamant refusal, there would have been a Taylor Swift cameo that could have become a real hit. And yet at the same time, the formula I've come to love is still here - sure, it's nowhere near as refined and thus doesn't land the sharp impact of his best work, but it still works and has a lot of charm to it. And while I'd definitely hesitate to include this among Turner's best work, it's got the energy his worst material lacks, and overall comes together into an enjoyable record.

So let's start with the obvious positives, most of which are tied to Frank Turner himself. The guy has always had a knack for a killer crowd-pleasing chorus that plays off of deceptively simple melodies driven in the layered guitars and pianos, and considering how much of this album drives for just that, it's no surprise that it delivers, with Turner's punk-inspired shouting vocals bringing a ton of visceral power. And yet on the few quieter moments, he proves he's still got the expressiveness to sell moments of heartfelt melancholy. And with the inclusion of a bigger backing chorus - which includes artists like Billy The Kid, Jaclyn Monroe, and even Lindi Ortega, who I covered last week - his songs are bigger and heavier than ever...

And to some extent this is a mixed blessing across the board, and where it's most noticed is the production, handled by longtime pop rock producer Butch Walker, who has worked with a swathe of mainstream accessible acts including Panic! At The Disco, Fall Out Boy, Weezer, Taylor Swift, Pink, and Avril Lavigne. And you can definitely tell - the guitars have more burly, roiling presence, the mix balance is impeccably even and polished, especially with the bass guitar adding the foundation to the verses to compliment the acoustic guitar, and even as pianos and organs and even horns on 'Mittens' cascade through the mix to compliment the grooves, all of it is compressed together to drive the main underlying melody... which honestly was a bit frustrating. When you have so many distinctive voices filling up your backing chorus, you'd think Turner and Walker might have given them unique, interweaving harmonies, or given unique instruments a little bit more room to breathe and rise above the mass of sound for more than just a solo. We do get a bit of this: the tight rollick of the guitar melody a slight shift on the underlying piano chords on 'The Next Storm'; the organ supplementing the gospel swell on the chorus and the great melodic groove on 'Glorious You'; the crazed punk wildness of 'Out Of Breath' that still has a solid foundation in the pianos and a great smoldering groove on the second verse; the acoustic and electric guitars balancing perfectly with the piano flourishes on 'Demons' to the stellar pianos work driving the incredibly tight strumming on 'Love Forty Down'. But even with these moments, there's an odd feeling of 'sameness' here, not as many instrumental digressions venturing into folk or country, and the few we have not really getting the same room to breathe.

And believe it or not, I'd say much of the same about the songwriting, most of which is thematically exploring the concept of weathering the worst to come back all the strong, a natural followup to the break-up themes on 2013's Tape Deck Heart. Lyrically, it's still chock full of the literary references to TS Elliot and Pascal and Napoleon & Beethoven that you'd expect from Turner, recontextualized into instantly understandable nuggets as he writes about how to rise from rough times into the sunshine - in other words, the perfect theme for an anthemic rock record. Of course, it wouldn't be a Frank Turner album if he didn't make it more complicated, making his narrative desperate and confused and complicated as he admits it's far from easy on 'The Next Storm' and 'Love Forty Down' and that it's often a road you'll have to walk alone, like on 'Mittens' where he meets the harsh realization the girl he's in love with doesn't treat him with the same interest. But all of it is done under the profession that life, be it living hard or fast, making deals with demons only to double-cross them and keep going, to meet death out-of-breath, tell him he's late, and then fire him, all of it must be worth it. It's why many consider 'Silent Key' the penultimate moment on the album, a fictionalized account of a message Christa McAuliffe could have broadcasted before her death in the Challenger explosion, that even as she dies she screams that she lived - got to rise to the heavens, soar towards the unknown, be an astronaut... and then you get her segment, provided by folk singer Esme Patterson, where the only peace she needed came with death, and yet it's better not to have that peace if it means life in exchange. And it's one of the reasons why the album closer 'Song For Josh' hits so strongly as Turner sings about a friend who took his own life and how he wishes he could have been there to provide even a modicum of support, having been to that brink himself. It links back to the underlying arc of this album: you might have to ride this rough life alone, but you sure as hell don't want to.

And if all of what I described feels broad and a little corny... well, yeah, it is, but when you have it backed up by such raw sincerity, it can redeem a lot. But all of that being said, despite thematic cohesion I can't help but feel we've seen Turner tread over a lot of this ground before, and his choice to go bigger means that we lose some of the personal details that gave his early work a sense of intimacy and uniqueness. Where it becomes a problem is on tracks like 'Mittens', where the chorus is 'We used to fit like mittens, but never like gloves' - not a bad line and I get the meaning, but it feels a little goofy when sold with such unabashed power. And go a step further to songs like 'Josephine', which calls back to historical figures like Napoleon and Beethoven who had partners named Josephine to drive them to new heights... but then we get the lyric 'I don't like to be needy, but needs must'... not only is it not a great line, it's surprisingly clumsy, and it's not alone in the shaky technical writing. 

And in a sense that doesn't surprise me - this is an album angling for a much bigger scope than previous Frank Turner albums, there's bound to be a few slipups. But what it does mean is that there's enough spots and a lack of overall unique texture that prevents it from rising to truly great status. It's not to say Positive Songs For Negative People is a bad album - far from it, it's got a rock solid foundation in writing, delivery, and composition that Butch Walker puts on steroids to get it a strong 7/10 from me. But I can't help but wish it was a little stronger. Definitely worth checking out, though: if Frank Turner's going to double cross demons to get better, I'd be happy to help lift the weight of the world off his shoulders.

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