Friday, 8 July 2011

Frank Turner - England Keep My Bones

Frank Turner is many things to many people. He advertises himself as simply ‘one of you’, nothing more than the guitar playing one in a vast, all-encompassing group of friends. He is adored by his fans as a ‘beardy god’ and lauded by the media as a ‘Folk-Rock troubadour’. One thing that nobody can argue, however, is that he is one of the hardest working men in modern music. In 5 short years he has released 3 studio albums and 3 EP’s and clocked up well over 1,000 shows. This fourth effort is his most anticipated so far.

The album is, if nothing else, quintessentially English. The title itself is taken from Shakespeare’s ‘History of King John’ (although Turner admits he is yet to read the play itself). Looking at the quote itself it’s quite clear why the record is named thusly:

‘O me! My Uncle’s spirit is in these stones!/Heaven take my soul but England keep my bones!’

It speaks of heritage and religion and above all else; good old Englishness. The traditional nature of the album resounds from the very first, warbly, trumpet-produced note. Turner leads us through a throwback to music from Coronation Street and old bread adverts. The track; ‘Eulogy’ is a fitting introduction if ever there was one. It rises from it’s traditional opening into a rousing, thunderous mid-section and a familiar sounding folk/acoustic ending. The lyrics encourage listeners that it’s OK to be normal, and un-extraordinary, as long as you make the most of the time you’ve got, stating ‘not everyone can be Freddy Mercury, but everyone can raise a glass and sing’. Mr Turner lays down the entire premise of his album in that first minute and a half.

The first full length track (and first single) is an ode to Frank’s grandmother, Peggy. He tells the story of how his Grandmother visited him in his sleep, and played cards and drank whisky with him. But, as is often the case in his work, there’s message behind it all. Peggy believes that all that matters is what you do with your life, and not where your life started.

The record continues on to fan-favourite ‘I Still Believe’, his anthemic tribute to the importance of a good sing-song before moving on to the first of the unheard tracks, entitled ‘Rivers’. The old Patrick James Eggle guitar rings with a very ‘Turner-y’ familiarity from the off and the lyrics speak about travelling through the English countrysides and cities. In my opinion, these kind of songs are Frank’s strength and he’s created another belter here. With a lyrical shout to, and in fact, vocal support from another folk-rock troubadour, Chris T-T, all of the stops are pulled out to create a good healthy Frank Turner acoustic anthem.

Next up is another track already released to the public, ‘I Am Disappeared’. More of a tribute to Bob Dylan than anything the song is already hugely popular among Turner’s (rapidly increasing) fan base. However, next is another demonstration of strength. ‘English Curse’ is an entirely a capella tale of medieval Wessex. The fact that a track like this features at all on the album is demonstrative of the sheer intrepidity of the artist. You’ll look a long way before you find another artist with the balls to do anything like that, and his courage is rewarded as the song is a real high point of the record.

Before taking to the road as a travelling Acoustic-Folk minstrel, Turner was the frontman of Hardcore Punks ‘Million Dead’. On the next track ‘One Foot Before the Other’, Turner hearkens back to those days with a heavier, more raw-sounding composition. The lyrics are exemplary of the album, with themes of death and tradition. But the track is obviously so much more geared towards the sound of the backing, and Ben Lloyd’s rasping guitar comes into it’s own. The sad fact is, despite the obvious quality of the track, this just isn’t the Frank that his fans have grown to know and love.

The album returns to it’s chirpy manner and English theme over the next two tracks. ‘If Ever I Stray’ also touches on a religious theme as Turner questions his morals and his punishment. He begs to be thrown into the English channel should he ever wander from the path he’s taken. ‘Wessex Boy’ is none other than a solid tribute to the land of his fathers, with which he clearly feels a strong affinity. His acoustic guitar riffs over lyrics speaking of specific Winchester landmarks, a treat perhaps for his Hampshire-based followers. Both tracks are good, strong, standard Turner pieces and it’s hard to fault their brilliance.

It’s the last three tracks where the album comes into it’s own. ‘Nights Become Days’ is reminiscent of earlier tracks such as ‘Worse Things Happen At Sea’ or ‘A Decent Cup of Tea’, both in their sound and their obvious emotion. The track itself is a message to a friend of Turner’s who went off the rails under the influence of drugs; ’everyone stumbles on cheap cocaine, it burns up the best and burdens the brain’. His sadness and concern reverberate through every note and the chorus is haunting and sombre as anything Turner has done before. The end of the song is a mix of relief as Turner delivers his final message to this lost soul; You’re getting there, your friends are here, just keep strong.

The penultimate track is perhaps the strongest on the album but also is arguably the most personal that Frank has ever written. Entitled ‘Redemption’ it apologises for, explains and laments some of his biggest regrets. He realises that he’s unfairly treated some people who ‘deserve better’. He quite clearly questions his own moral fibre and standing. It makes for another haunting track but one which demonstrates his own formidable talent, musically and lyrically. The poetic nature of the song combines flawlessly with the impressive keyboard work of Mr Matt Nasir to give the album it’s highest point musically.

And so we come to the final track. It has been described as an ‘Atheistic Gospel Song’ or an ‘Agnostic Anthem’ and again shows the real ballsiness of the man. An anthem is the best way to describe but the church organ and the gospel-like choir definitely give a religious feel. The choir may sing ‘there is no god!’ but there is a deeper message to it than that. Rather than being an anti-religious hate song, it’s more of an explanation of Turner’s own take on life’s big question of what happens after death. He believes that there is simply nothing, so we shouldn’t spend our lives making sacrifices to appease a higher power, and we should just make the most of the time we have. Despite being controversial in nature, it’s very representative of modern culture and beliefs. It makes for a great song and a fantastic finale to the album.

In production this album had much to live up to. The fanbase had built it up exponentially and the anticipation was intense. However, England Keep My Bones passes all tests with flying colours and is clearly Turner’s finest effort to date. His musical variety, lyrical genius and harmony with his band has really matured from the last album. It has a feel that seems to be the truest representation of Frank Turner in himself. He expresses himself the only way he knows how: with fine music.

With a main stage slot at this year’s Reading and Leeds festivals and shows at Wembley and Brixton under his belt, things are heading solidly up for Turner. It could well be that this is the album which finally propels him to the next level. It would be exactly what he deserves.

Rating: 85%

Standout Tracks: One Foot Before The Other, Redempton

Record Label: Xtra Mile Recordings/Epitaph Records

Release Date: 7th June 2011

Words by Alex Wood

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