On which the punk rocker gone acoustic gets intensely personal
Last autumn, Frank Turner let NME into the suburban Los Angeles studio where he was laying down his fifth solo album. “Without going into details, it’s kind of ended up being a break-up record,” he told us at Eldorado Recording Studio of the follow-up to 2011’s reflectively patriotic ‘England Keep My Bones’. “It’s a record about ‘What do you do when something that was supposed to be perfect comes to its natural end?'” The steadfastly English songsman might not have gone into the gory minutiae of said relationship breakdown then, but ‘Tape Deck Heart’ is all about the heart-wrenching details. An intensely personal record, the process of listening to the dozen tracks here is as intimate – and sometimes as uncomfortable – as reading pages ripped straight from Frank’s diary.
Opener ‘Recovery’ is a classic ‘I’m going to get over you’ statement of intent, from the cider-drenched nights spent “blacking in and out in a strange flat in east London” through to some kind of redemption (“one day this will all be over“). Backed by the persistent blast of a full band teeming with jubilant piano, it makes for a perky anthem for the freshly dumped. Outrageously uplifting despite its morose subject matter, it paves the way for ‘The Way I Tend To Be’. Frank might have donned a pair of rather rose-tinted glasses for this out-and-out love song, but they don’t half suit him.
“I want it to feel like The Last Waltz soundtrack,” Frank told NME of the record, aligning the album with the buoyant soundtrack from folk-rock pioneers The Band’s triumphant last show. “It feels like a jamboree. It feels like an end-of-the-century party.” Which it does, right up until the ache of ‘Good & Gone’ and the harrowing ‘Tell Tale Signs’. Starting with Frank boldly naming the woman who ripped his heart out and then trampled on it in steel toe-capped DMs (“goddamnit, Amy“, he spits), the latter song then dives into graphic stories of teenage self-harm with his dad’s razor. Frank isn’t one for making things more palatable with mawkish metaphors. Instead he softens the blow of such stark lyrics with melody. He might be describing the cuts on his arms, but it’s cushioned by music that draws on the dreaminess of early Ryan Adams.
It’s on ‘Tell Tale Signs’ as well as the jangling ‘Losing Days’ that the record’s recurring motif of tattoos is strongest. Like Tom Waits and The Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon before him, Frank’s obsession with ink is more than just skin deep. From the record’s artwork – an old-school design by one of Frank’s favourite tattoo artists, Florida-based Heather Ann Law – to the lyrical references concerning the etchings that cover his own body, this isn’t just about body modification, but the marks and scars each of us carry, as well as Frank’s proud counter-cultural allegiances.
Romantic woes are briefly swept aside for the genre-hopping stomp of ‘Four Simple Words’, which celebrates the majesty of a DIY punk-rock gig, Frank digging at music made by “lacklustre scenesters from Shoreditch“. Live music gets another shout-out via a eulogy for London’s late, lamented Astoria in the heavy-duty Foo Fighters-meets-Fairport Convention triumph of ‘Polaroid Picture’.
It’s not until the end of the album and the mournful, mesmerising ‘Broken Piano’ that we finally hear Frank rhapsodising about his beloved England, mixing native pride with lovelorn anguish. Borrowing heavily from the traditional ‘The Banks Of Sweet Primroses’ by way of Billy Bragg’s 1988 a capella ‘Tender Comrade’, Frank takes us on an aural trip to his ex-lover’s window, down to the muddy Thames from Highgate Hill and onward to the Isle Of Dogs. Despite recording in the States, he hasn’t forsaken his British roots. So if the Brit Awards jury are again going to give next year’s Best Male Solo Artist gong to a man most of the country haven’t heard of, going by the mighty ‘Tape Deck Heart’, Frank must be a shoo-in.