Frank Turner used to be in a hardcore band and he has the tattoos to prove it. But after that band broke up in 2005, he went out and retooled himself as an “acoustic” singer-songwriter. It may sound like an abrupt transition to you, and you’d be right, if Turner was now doing a Simon and Garfunkel thing. Instead, on Tape Deck Heart, he’s more indebted to bands like Flogging Molly.
There’s acoustic instruments here, sure—guitars and mandolins and pianos—but most of it is distorted electric guitars, and Turner’s past is never really very far from the surface on this album. He sings about his tattoos on “Losing Days,” and the wildly energetic “Four Simple Words” makes no mistake about where Turner’s heart is: “Is anyone else sick of the music/Churned out by lackluster scenesters from Shoreditch?/…I want bands who had to work for their keep/Drove a thousand miles and played a show on no sleep.” “Four Simple Words” sounds like a direct sequel to the equally rousing “I Still Believe” from the 2010 EP “Rock & Roll.” Turner seems to be a naturally anthemic writer, perhaps because of his time in the punk scene, or perhaps because he’s commercially savvy—or maybe both.
It’s not surprising to find a song so informed by Turner’s past on this introspective album. Despite its aggressive tempos, most of the album is very melancholy—vignettes of a life that seems to be slipping away faster than Turner or his characters can run it down. He’s focused very much on mortality, which motivates both the bittersweet “Polaroid Picture” and “Oh Brother,” a meditation dedicated to a recently departed friend about how the bonds that young men form with each other evolve. There are luckily hints of humor: in “Anymore,” he delivers the line “I’m not drinking anymore…but I’m not drinking any less” with perfect timing, and his pastiche-y vocal quaver on a chorus line from “Four Simple Words” inject a wink or two into a record that could use a laugh every now and then.
There’s a lot of meat on the bone thematically, and it speaks well of Turner’s prowess as a writer that he’s able to explore his themes with a nuanced eye. The music is equally textured. It’s not a three-chord smash and go like some pop punk stuff, and Turner and his band work with sustained chords (on the lush “Good & Gone”), modal patterns (the intro to “Oh Brother”) and heavily reverb’d drums (“Broken Piano”). There’s a nice guitar tone on “Oh Brother,” and the mandolin on “The Way I Tend To Be” is another sonic standout.
I have to admit that this wasn’t what I expected to find when I bought the album after I was lured in by the criminally catchy single “Recovery.” It’s easily the record’s most memorable track, but I soon realized the song is actually something of an outlier, both lyrically and musically. It’s cathartic and forward looking in a way that the rest of the album isn’t, and it feels like a bit of a thematic disconnect. It would have maybe worked better as the album’s final track, giving a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel and a sense of closure.
But ultimately, I don’t think that’s what this album is about. Turner is trying to get across that closure doesn’t always come, or takes longer than you might think. “But these days I’m collecting scars that don’t seem to fade/cuts and bruises that won’t go away.” The only balm he seems to know is making rock & roll—and Tape Deck Heart is prescription-strength stuff.