Tape Deck Heart
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Wow, Frank Turner is one bummed-out dude. Literally writhing in misery, as he conveys in detail on Tape Deck Heart, the kind of album that doesn’t just tell us what it feels like to have your heart cut out, it practically puts us on the operating table during the surgery – which, of course, happens before the anesthesia kicks in. And he does it so well, we willingly bleed right along with him.
From its first track, “Recovery,” Turner grips us in his drama, making us feel his sweat as he wails, “I’ve been pounding on the floor and I’ve been crawling up the walls, and I’ve been dipping in my darkness for serotonin boosters, cider and some kind of smelling salts.”
Aside from his ability to stick words like “serotonin” into a song – and make them fit perfectly, without a hint of stumbling awkwardness – here’s the remarkable thing about Turner: For a punk-rooted guy seemingly so full of despair, he makes some incredibly upbeat music. Exuberant, even. No one’s done a song this jaunty about fighting addiction, substance or otherwise, since fellow Brit Amy Winehouse’s defiant “Rehab.” (Sadly, we now know just how badly she needed to go go go.) But Turner, in contrast, truly wants to heal. Running through a litany of remedies as drummer Nigel Powell machine-guns a beat and keyboardist Matt Nasir pounds a piano, Turner begs his lover for a sign that she’ll take him back “if only I could make me better.”
“Broken people can get better if they really want to,” Turner pleads. “Or at least that’s what I have to tell myself if I am hoping to survive.” By the time he hits that last word, he’s almost roaring, simultaneously rebelling against and releasing all that pain with such force, you just know he will. Survive, that is. At least for now.
But man, is he good at portraying the ultimate fuckup, listing his downfalls in lyrical therapy sessions so personal, it’s as if he’s spilled open his diary. And we can’t help but listen, especially when he stops us in our tracks with a line like “You stood apart in my calloused heart, and you taught me and here’s what I learned: That love is about the changes you make and not just three small words.”
That’s some powerful insight from anyone, but Turner brilliantly packs it into one tight little couplet in “The Way I Tend To Be,” a grabby mid-tempo mandolin-banjo tune destined to become a concert sing-along. It’s one of several songs on this, his fifth solo album, that are so pop-catchy, they buoy you regardless of their subject matter (an intentional contrast, he’s admitted). If they weren’t so lilting and melodic, he’d come off as one more Morrissey (a.k.a. Morose-y) and we’d be searching for sharp blades.
Actually, he sings about those, too – right about when he shifts from upbeat mode to more naked anger and pain. In “Tell Tale Signs,” the track from which the album draws its title, Turner goes almost emo, talking about cutting himself with a disassembled portable razor “that I stole from my dad, when I thought that suffering was something profound.” In a voice high and slightly worn – and weary – he drops metaphors with apparent abandon. But they land with a sharpshooter’s accuracy.
Then there’s the cheeky attitude of “Four Simple Words,” a punk-rock manifesto that puts down scenesters and hipsters with equal relish (not to mention those colleagues and friends who “condescend with a smile”) as it skips from a ballad to near-ska speed, with a nod to vintage Vaudeville. “Forget about the bitching and remember that you’re blessed, because punk is for the kids who never fit in with the rest,” Turner declares, after explaining, “I’d like to teach you four simple words, so that next time you come to a show / You could sing those words back at me like they’re the only ones that you know.” And those four words? “I want to dance.”
It’s quite a contrast with the sarcasm-drenched existential despair of “The Fisher King Blues,” which drips with hard words that indict nearly everyone, couched in delicate acoustic chords. “Yes you can try and try and try,” he sings, “but no one ever makes it out alive.”
As he simultaneously laments and tries to accept the passage of time (with mile markers such as the heart-tugging “Oh Brother,” the almost gleeful declaration, “We Shall Not Overcome” and the comically confessional “Wherefore Art Thou, Gene Simmons?”) Turner seems to be reminding us that, yeah, life’s a bitch and then you die, but until then, you will survive. So don’t forget to dance. And he shares one more important confession: He’d still get the same tattoos.