While Frank Turner is often referred to as the UK Springsteen the comparison doesn’t really stand up, not least since Turner’s lyrics rarely have the same blue collar poetry. Which isn’t to detract from what Turner does, a more accurate analogy would be as a sort of Billy Bragg (at least in his vocal delivery) with stadium anthem choruses and cranked up guitars. Certainly, Turner knows how to write songs with the sort of major chords, punk-influenced energy and chorus that get crowds joining in en masse, regardless of whether the lyrics are jubilantly optimistic or relentlessly downbeat.
Having gone through the break-up desolation of Tape Deck Heart, Positive Songs For Negative People sees him on the mend. This is initially announced on fingerpicked acoustic opener The Angel Islington where he softly admits he hasn’t been himself, but that “By the waters of the Thames, I resolve to start again,” to, as he puts it, “wash my feet and cleanse my sins.” If this gives the impression of muted humility, that’s immediately dashed when, drums hammering and all guns firing, Get Better unequivocally declares his resurrection as he defiantly belts out lines like “I got me a future, I’m not stuck on the past!” and “we could get better because we’re not dead yet.” It’s hard not to want to find the highest mountain and punch the sky.
The same’s true of The Next Storm, drawing on images of climatic natural disasters to admit that there’s been ‘a rough few months’, but these have been put behind him and now it’s time “Rejoice! Rebuild!” and step out and face the sunshine. Almost as an afterthought, there’s a streak of social politics optimism in there too. Though it may have well been written before the last election.
Such ebullience is pretty much characteristic of the album as he romps through the likes of the mandolin-accompanied mea culpa The Opening Act Of Spring, on which he again draws on meteorological imagery. Then again on the guitar punching Glorious Day, a frantic Out of Breath, and the circling guitars of Demons on which he shouts “Goddamn, it’s great to be alive!” only to add “don’t it break your heart to know that none of this will last?”
Turner’s always been one for good metaphor, especially when it illustrates his cultural awareness. In the past he’s nodded to T.S. Eliot and on the chugging Josephine, for example, where, recalling a dream about some woman of that name, he says he’s waiting for her to come and awake him up and rescue him from being “an impending car crash”. The Napoleon reference is obvious, but how many out there know the connection of a Josephine to Beethoven.
That’s clever stuff, but the sentimental Mittens is rather more strained. A mid-tempo, piano-led number, he uses the image of unreturned postcards and the “10,000 ten-word word tragedies”, they represent to prompt memories of handmade mittens his ex gave him and to wonder if she ever listened to his love songs, remarking “we used to fit like mittens but never like gloves.” The same can be said of Love Forty Down, a tired and extended tennis metaphor for a relationship on which someone should have called ‘fault’.
As usual, the album is heavily autobiographical, but one number reaches beyond the personal, the grunge-tempo Silent Key, on which he’s joined by Esmé Patterson, imagining Challenger victim Christa McAuliffe calling out “I’m alive” over the radio after surviving the fuel tank explosion only to die in the fall to Earth.
It ends, however, on what is the most intimately personal song of them all. Recorded live and acoustic at Washington D.C.’s 9:30 Club, Song For Josh is a heartfelt elegy to the club manager and friend Josh Burdette who committed suicide in 2013 aged 35. With a trembling voice full of emotion, he asks “why didn’t you call… why didn’t you say something…”, movingly observing that “You can measure the mark of a man on the day that he died. In the mixture of memory and wreckage that he leaves behind.” After all the stirring, but crafted angst and anthemic defiance that has gone before, this is as raw and as naked as they come and a reminder of the heart behind the PR image.
Review by: Mike Davies
Positive Songs For Negative People is Out Now via Polydor