Saturday, March 26, 2016
Frank Turner - Positive Songs for Negative People
That's certainly the case with Positive Songs for Negative People, the sixth full-length LP from British folk-punk artist Frank Turner, and arguably his most consistent album to date. Turner's last two albums—2011's England Keep My Bones and 2013's Tape Deck Heart—were both solid efforts that suffered from occasionally wonky and jarring track list decisions. In both cases, Turner left some of his most essential songs on the cutting room floor ("Wanderlust" from England and "We Shall Not Overcome" from Tape Deck Heart), and made some questionable choices with track ordering (ending England Keep My Bones with the awful "Glory Hallelujah," or dropping the rollicking pirate punk of "Four Simple Words" right smack dab in the middle of the sad and sobering Tape Deck Heart) that made it more difficult to appreciate those albums as singular works of art.
Turner makes no such mistakes with Positive Songs for Negative People, orchestrating the album like a perfect mixtape right from one acoustic bookend ("The Angel of Islington") to another ("Song for Josh"). Frank not only orders these songs to tell a story, but also to keep things exciting and unpredictable throughout the 40 minutes that make up the album. In fact, some of transitions are purposefully quite jarring, to keep you on your toes. "The Angel of Islington," for instance, plays like a prelude or intro track to the rest of the album, starting with the sound of Frank walking into a studio and picking up a guitar, and then remaining as a fully acoustic one-man-show of a song. The first words of the tune, "By the waters of the Thames," pick up directly where Tape Deck Heart left off (the final words of that album's closing track were "On the banks of the muddy Thames"), and "The Angel of Islington" acts as one last elegy to the shattered relationship the last album discussed.
Then, as soon as the lo-fi "Angel" closes out—with the words "I resolved to start again"—the album explodes into lead-off single "Get Better." "I got me a shovel, and I'm digging a ditch/And I'm gonna fight for this four-square feet of land like a mean old son of a bitch," Frank roars, as scathing garage rock guitar chords and pounding drums make their entrance. "Get Better" builds into the album's anthemic mission statement, which is essentially to get over heartbreak and move the fuck on. "She drew a line across the middle of my broken heart/And said 'Come on now, let's fix this mess'/We could get better, because we're not dead yet." It's one of Frank's best songs and a readymade live showstopper, and it hits like a ton of bricks here solely because the sequencing of the album is so great. As a single, I liked "Get Better" a lot. On record, coming after "The Angel of Islington," it feels like the start of one of the great heartbreak recovery records, like Frank is finally reaching the destination he sang about on the opener of Tape Deck Heart: "It's a long way up to recovery from here/It's a long way back to the light."
Indeed, at least half of Positive Songs for Negative People plays like a direct sequel to Tape Deck Heart. Both "The Next Storm" and "The Opening Act of Spring" use weather metaphors to evoke the resilience of moving on after a tough break up, while "Glorious You" bears clear similarities to the aforementioned "We Shall Not Overcome," suggesting that it may have been built from same basic blueprint as the Tape Deck b-side.
But Positive Songs for Negative People is also more than just disc two of a Tape Deck Heart double album. Where Tape Deck was a rootsy folk-rock record that drew a lot of influence from '90s Counting Crows, Positive Songs is Turner's Big Rock Record, filled with sky-scraping anthems meant to be screamed along by the crowd at a live show. While Turner can do an awful lot with just an acoustic guitar and a soul-baring lyric (as evidenced by perfect songs like "Redemption" and "Good & Gone"), he's also the kind of rock and roll frontman whose barrel-chested roar sounds great in the middle of huge arrangements. The arrangements here are suitably big, obviously heavy on the electric guitar, but also using a good deal of piano to add some extra classic rock swagger to songs like "The Next Storm" and "Demons." It also doesn't hurt that Butch Walker, doing some career-best work behind the boards, produces the absolute hell out of the thing.
For years, Butch has been a go-to producer and songwriter for pop artists, but he's actually better at orchestrating the quote-unquote "Big Rock Record," as he did for himself and his Black Widows on 2011's The Spade, or for Dashboard Confessional on 2009's Alter the Ending. Positive Songs for Negative People bears a clear resemblance to both of those records, in that the songs find a perfect balance between big, shiny production and raw, electric performances. Songs like "Josephine" and "Demons," with their high-rise gang vocals and big choruses, are thoroughly polished, with Walker making sure that each aspect of each arrangement—from the tinkling keys of "Demons" to the chugging bass lines of "Josephine"—are easy to pick out of the texture. But Positive Songs is also far from overproduced, with Frank, Butch, and Turner's skilled band always retaining the soul and spontaneity inherent in these big, big songs.
That's largely due to the fact that Turner recorded all of the vocals for this album as one-takes, forgoing overdubs and punch-ins for straight live takes on each song. The results of that choice are evident in the roaring conviction that Frank commits to every single moment on the disc. There are a few slight imperfections in his vocals, but for the most part, he's right on point, delivering each soaring melody with appropriate gravitas, and capturing the emotional mood of each song (the resilience of "Get Better" and "The Next Storm," the resigned sadness of "Mittens," the desperation of "Love Forty Down") with visceral force. In fact, Frank's conviction makes lyrics that probably wouldn't work for any other artist—the love-as-gloves metaphor in "Mittens," the "God damn, it's great to be alive" proclamation in "Demons," or the tennis match metaphors of "Love Forty Down"—sound like gospel.
Ultimately, though, it's the sequencing that really sets Positive Songs for Negative People apart from Frank's previous work. The album is so perfectly laid out that is actually serves up more of an emotional wallop than the emotionally naked Tape Deck Heart. The flow is impeccable, from the aforementioned opening suite, to the rapidfire "Out of Breath"—which works for this album in a way that the similarly positioned (and similarly punk-driven) "Four Simple Words" never worked on Tape Deck Heart. "Demons" and "Josephine" are effectively paired on side two, both owing a good deal of inspiration to The Hold Steady. "Demons" is a dead ringer for "Our Whole Lives" (a cut from the back half of The Hold Steady's 2010 LP, Heaven is Whenever), while "Josephine" has a lyric ("So come on now Josephine, let's pretend it's Halloween/You come as a car crash, I'll go as James Dean") reminiscent of a similar line from The Hold Steady's "The Weekenders" ("She said the theme of this party's the industrial age/And you came in dressed like a trainwreck"). "Love Forty Down" and "Silent Key," meanwhile, make for a similarly perfect late-album pairing, with the former fading into the latter like they are two parts of the same song. They combine to give the back end of the album a thrilling climactic heft.
But Turner saves the best for last in the form of the gut-wrenching "Song for Josh." The song was written for the late Josh Burdette, who used to be the manager of the 9:30 Club in Washington D.C. before he took his own life in September 2013. Unlike the rest of the record, "Song for Josh" was actually recorded live in concert—fittingly, at the 9:30 Club itself, on June 4th of last year. Frank plays it completely acoustic, and the audience is so quiet that you could hear a pin drop, allowing the sobering words of the song to take center stage. "Why didn't you call?" Frank asks in the first verse, "My phone's always on." "Why didn't you call, before you got gone?/I can't say for certain what I would have said/But now I am hopelessly silent instead/There's a hole in my heart and my head/Why didn't you call?"
These are thoughts that have passed through the mind of anyone who has ever lost a friend to suicide, these unanswerable questions like "Why didn't you say something?" or "How could things have been so bad that this was the only way out?" On "Song for Josh," Frank asks those questions while simultaneously knowing that they will only ever be a part of a one-sided conversation. The song is a raw and unbridled examination of grief, of the guilt that friends and family must shoulder when a loved one takes their own life, and of "the mixture of memory and wreckage" that a person leaves behind when they go. I'm fortunate in that I have never lost a friend in this manner—though I am close with many people who have. Even if you haven't gone through that impossible struggle, though, this song will leave you fighting tears—just as Frank sounds like he's doing on the recording. It's a gut-punch that ends this record perfectly, and it's easily one of the four or five best songs of the year.
All told, Positive Songs for Negative People is Frank Turner's most complete album since Love, Ire & Song, and perhaps his best as well. Aided by expert production from Butch Walker, as well as some truly remarkable sequencing, Turner morphs a set of anthemic rock songs into a deeper work about pushing on through life's rough patches and finding ways to cherish the best days. Sure, that's a theme we've seen done before on countless occasions, but it's rarely done with this level of authenticity or conviction. Some will cry for Frank to step further outside of his wheelhouse, and Positive Songs for Negative People admittedly hews fairly close to the formula he's devised for himself over the course of five previous albums. But formulas usually exist for a reason, and on career-best songs like "Get Better," "The Next Storm," "Demons," "Love Forty Down," and "Song for Josh," it's tough to imagine Frank Turner hitting a better groove by trying reinvent the wheel.