[10 September 2009]
Frank Turner made the most of his time at South by Southwest 2009. Kicking things off early in the festival with a 10-song set at the British Music Embassy showcase, Turner got the crowd to forget their free BBQ and beer, and generated a buzz that only got louder after the Jail Guitar Doors showcase on Friday night. Scheduled at the end of sets by Howard Eliott Payne, Beans on Toast, Hey Negrita, Otis Gibbs, and Ed Harcourt, Turner ran out of time before he really even got a chance to get started. So, Turner took his show outside, treating a growing 6th Street crowd to a three-song singalong mini-set.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more music-saturated crowd than the folks at SXSW, but Turner opened plenty of eyes. He storms at you with the clarity of a true believer (his time in punk bands like Kneejerk and Million Dead obviously well-spent) and his lyric sheets read like journal entries, but his music isn’t the least bit overbearing. That’s probably because Turner’s songs are also full of real-world complications. He mixes the fire of idealism with the frustrating complacency of getting older, the love of playing his music with the grind of the road, grief over a friend with the need to celebrate life It all combines to create that lightning-in-a-bottle X-factor, that indefinable quality that separates a singer-songwriter from a very crowded herd.
So while it would be easy to mistake the directness and honesty of Turner’s music for a lack of subtlety. There’s quite a bit going on in a Frank Turner song—especially when you consider that, as he closes out his late-20s, his young man’s anger begins to settle into a more consistent flame that might not burn as hot, but which can still flare up when the right fuel is there. Songs like “Love Ire & Song” (from his strong 2008 disc of the same name), for example, contrasts creeping disillusionment (“These days I sit at home, I’m known to shout at my TV / And punk rock didn’t live up to what I’d hoped that it could be”) with flashes of revolution (“So come on old friends to the streets / Let’s be 1905 but not 1917 / Let’s be heroes / Let’s be martyrs / Let’s be radical thinkers who never have to test drive the least of their dreams”). For listeners who like their music passionate yet realistically conflicted, Turner’s the man.
The Poetry of the Deed continues in that vein, and if it’s not quite as strong as Love Ire & Song, it’s only because a few of the full-band arrangements sometimes fail to add anything to Turner’s insistent strumming and singing. But Poetry boasts plenty of highlights as Turner explores favorite themes, whether you’re looking for the unadorned Turner with just his acoustic guitar, or a full-band workup that actually takes a song to a new level. As in Turner’s previous work, the performing life figures prominently on Poetry. “The Road” looks to all points on the compass, recalling the sights and sounds of Turner’s recent years of nonstop touring (“the horizon is my home”), tinged by Turner’s weariness at the grind of constant travel and playing. “Faithful Son” gently reassures Turner’s mother and father that he’s devoted to them even if he didn’t follow the path they would have chosen, but that “I wasn’t joking when I said I plan to keep doing this until the day I’m dead.” Most rousingly, “Try This at Home” invites everyone to pick up a guitar with a raucous crying-for-a-pint-hoisting-singalong chorus of “we write love songs in C, we do politics in G, we sing songs about our friends in E minor.” This isn’t new territory for Turner, or for most singer-songwriters, but Turner continually surprises with his ability to take familiar subjects and make them sound fresh.
There’s always been a fair amount of politics in Turner’s songs—in the form of thoughts on the failings of disorganized movements, perhaps, or the need to get out into the streets—but it’s usually been in the context of songs about something else, where Turner just makes his way around to the political. Rarely has he taken on the powers that be as directly as he does on “Sons of Liberty”. In a fierce indictment of the growing police state (“I’d rather stand up naked against the elements alone / Than to give the hollow men the right to enter my home”), Turner takes a defiant stance against those who would devour his liberties and invalidate the sacrifices of his ancestors, and concludes that “a man who’d trade his liberty for a safe and dreamless sleep / Doesn’t deserve the both of them and neither shall he keep.” Turner’s often been compared to Billy Bragg for his unflinching heart-on-sleeve tendencies, but “Sons of Liberty”, perhaps more than any other Turner song, truly validates that comparison.
Poetry of the Deed still isn’t the perfect Frank Turner album, as a few songs sound a little generic due to the full-band arrangements not shouldering their part of the load. But Poetry‘s a darn good one, showing that the striving, complicated songs of the past weren’t flukes. Turner has more eyes on him now, and he’s not shrinking from the challenge.