Monday, May 7, 2018

album review: 'be more kind' by frank turner

At this point, I literally have no idea what to expect from Frank Turner.

Well okay, that's not quite true, but from his departure from post-hardcore towards indie folk and indie rock - and given that I didn't hear any of his singles going in - I literally had no expectations where this was going to go. Granted, there is a certain earnest sonic palette in his music that's familiar - surging guitars, big hooks, generally in the realms of indie folk rock - but beyond that, they were shades of a recognizable formula. So, even while I consider Love, Ire & Song his best work - and one of the best albums of the 2000s - it's not even that far removed from his last record Positive Songs For Negative People, arguably his biggest play for mainstream-adjacent attention courtesy of production from Butch Walker and even rumors of a Taylor Swift collaboration that didn't materialize - and while given what has happened to her in the past few years we'd probably consider that a blessing, there is a part of me that wishes that maybe some of Frank Turner could have rubbed off on her, that could have been really cool.

Instead, I started hearing odd things about this release, with influences spanning from Gang Of Four and Wire to mid-period records from The Cure, maybe even a pivot into 80s pop. This would unquestionably be a departure for him, and this has led to some of the most polarized reviews I've seen surrounding this project, especially when you hear there's a pretty stark political element to it. Now here's the thing: Frank Turner's political writing has always been complicated - go back to the title track of Love, Ire & Song and you'll realize he's never been some hard-line punk or leftist. And while my own tendencies have pushed me more in that direction, I'm up for the nuanced, difficult conversation, especially when you remember that Frank Turner is not American and even if a stylistic departure like this might wind up being an outlier for him long-term. So alright, what did we get on Be More Kind?

Oh boy... well, credit to Frank Turner, when I said I was ready for a nuanced and difficult conversation with this record, I certainly got it, because I completely get why Be More Kind will be a very tough record for a lot of fans to swallow, especially when you start digging into its content. So warning in advance, this review will likely get pretty political and loaded here, so if you're looking for the cliff notes whether the music is great enough to pull it over the top... well, not quite, and that's one of the reasons this conversation is bound to get messier than I'd otherwise prefer.

In fact, let's start there, and with the first change that I'm actually pretty okay with: ditching Butch Walker for three indie producers who are aiming to cultivate a smaller, more restrained, almost delicate palette. The textures are thinner and cleaner, the guitars feel a little more brittle, the bass grooves are more wiry and jagged, and the percussion ranges from the sort of ragged nervy punch that shows real instability to some of the most programmed and electronic beats that Frank Turner has ever used - and even then, on songs like 'Common Ground' against the choppy acoustics and bass, it sounds constantly on the edge of breaking down. And if that sounds damn close to heresy for diehard fans, especially when you factor the usage of more synthesizers from the overblown warping tones behind 'Make America Great Again' - a song that really feels way too stiff to be effective, especially in that incredibly underwhelming key change - or the the gentler swell behind 'There She Is' or borderline quirky production elements that you might have heard in adult alternative in the mid-2000s like on the chirpy 'Little Changes' or the buzzy cascades of synth on 'Blackout'... well, it kind of is, and while I get the point of how Turner is aiming for a deliberately smaller, softer, more inviting approach, if you're coming in expecting the huge anthems that have even characterized nearly all of his albums... well, you get a few like '1933', 'Brave Face' and 'There She Is', but the more pronounced feeling that characterizes Be More Kind is similar to that of the slightly dazed uncertainty that characterized a lot of Jeff Rosenstock's POST-, albeit with more of Turner's characteristic wistful earnestness that has always laid at the roots of his best songs. Of course that also means he's leaning more into his melodic singing than his more aggressive style, but he's always had buckets of charisma and that bone-deep weariness balanced against his sincerity makes songs like 'Don't Worry', 'Get It Right', the title track and even 'Going Nowhere' have a lot of charm, albeit not always a lot of distinctive instrumental texture.

But again, you can tell this was intentional, because this record is not aiming to be a firebrand punk release - and yes, this is where the conversation starts to get political and where on the surface you could definitely see Frank Turner skidding into the sort of centrist territory that would raise a lot of eyebrows, more about reaching across the aisle and listening and talking to those with whom we likely share more in common than we don't. And let me stress this is dicey territory because it operates on three fundamental assumptions: a.) that everyone is acting in good faith in this dialogue, b.) one side is aware it's backed by the inertia of the larger system which currently enforces inequalities of opportunity, and c.) that one side isn't fighting for active systemic disenfranchisement of the other. And this demands the sort of self-awareness and nuance that, let's be very honest, neither side can feel all that comfortable with as the loudest, most extreme voices further polarize the conversation. And I can see both sides being all the more reticent and suspicious to approach this because there have been actors in bad faith and naked trolling, substantially more given the current U.S. political administration with their blundering, antagonistic, anti-intellectual approach to policy, truth, and democratic government, so for Frank Turner to imply they'd be willing to come to the table and have this mature conversation can feel pretty naive at best and at worst enabling normalization of their behavior - sunshine isn't always the disinfectant we wish it could be.

But here's the thing: Frank Turner knows all of this as clearly as anybody, and what adds significant heft to the songwriting is the fact that he's ignoring the talking heads and punditry, the extremists and trolls to speak to the grassroots audience, many of whom who are scared, confused, angry at the other for reasons I doubt they'd ever be able to credibly articulate or disengaged to focus on their own self-interest because that's the only way you can function in a constant, screaming barrage. And Frank Turner frames himself as being much like them in not having the full set of answers, because he doesn't have them: mending a cultural divide between left and right is the sort of exhausting seismic shift where any effort is herculean. He wants to find those answers, though, and he does have some suggestions, with one of the few moments of catharsis we do get is '1933' in targeting both the new wave of Nazis and those who would seek to dismantle systems without any realistic fix or plan. And it's followed with songs like 'Little Changes' imply that to make anything better you need to start small at the local level, not relying on thoughts and prayers but actually taking action. And I can't stress enough that Turner's optimism and willingness to keep an open mind to conversation while trying to provide that bedrock of support gives this record a core of strength even despite feeling more bedraggled and haggard than ever - the plea to not 'decide what you will find' before you even start your search on the title track, the hope that the sentiment will survive on 'Going Nowhere', the clenched teeth and fists in the face of larger crises that come in 'Brave Face', even the desperate hope that something can be found in the middle with an acknowledgement that the way we disagree might be more damaging than the disagreement itself on 'Common Ground'. And a big part of all of this is that Turner isn't mincing around that we have big problems that'll demand humanity's entire involvement to solve, which is why songs like 'Brave Face', 'The Lifeboat' and '21st Century Survivalist Blues' focus on these underlying issues - although I will say the last of these can feel more sanctimonious than it should and is really only redeemed by 'Blackout' coming right after it to highlight how little he himself is prepared. 

And you know, there's a part of me that really admires how much Frank Turner sees the possibility that both sides can come around common ground, but it's really the song 'Make America Great Again' that highlights both the potential and gaping oversights in that approach. Because yes, he's seen folks across the States that are willing to accept that nuance and promote tolerance, make racists ashamed again and aspire to be better, reject those who would seek to rule without consequence or check... but if there's a song that could have used a moment to target the bad actors exploiting the divide more directly, it's this one. It feels slight, and it's a similar feeling I get when I hear 'Get It Right' so desperate to make something work, forgive mistakes, take a breath, and land on the same set of facts... when in reality there is entrenched misinformation mercenaries blindly accepted that could have deserved more attention than the shots at kids on their phones or in social media. It becomes hard to find common ground when there is an industry set on nuking it from orbit - and incidentally, that's one reason why the love song 'There She Is' works on this album, if only for the references of finding a partner who will believe you in the face of misinformation and gaslighting. And that's one reason that despite what I admire about this project, I almost feel like Frank Turner is in a no-win situation here - he brings his most inviting project to the table with the sort of balanced reason to appeal to everyone, but it might not have the raw firepower to truly yoke together that union, or take enough shots at those who profit and promote naked ignorance or non-engagement. He's certainly willing to take the steps and for those willing to listen it's a welcome step to get on board, but with the music not quite being as strong and a fair few tracks just feeling a little scant of greater details to flesh out the scene, I'm giving this a 7/10 - it's not his best, even when it comes to conscious content. Again, I can definitely admire this project and I think it could bring folks together, but again, the challenge is all about people agreeing on what is truth and getting people to listen... and for our sake down the road, I hope you do.

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