In the preface to his novel Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy described Wessex—the setting for much of his writing—as “a merely realistic dream country.” Although not as snappy as England Keep My Bones, Hardy’s phrase might well have made for a good alternative title for Frank Turner’s fourth album. For just as Hardy’s Wessex was his reimagined version of a historical kingdom, Frank Turner’s England is a mythologised version of the place we really live in. Turner, who regards himself as a “Wessex Boy”, guides us with his songs through an England where hamlets, villages, and even Exeter are on a par with London, and where any one of us can become a hero. It’s an exercise in myth-making with real power, but not one without uncomfortable moments.
Turner’s own transformation to musical cult hero began after the demise of the hardcore outfit Million Dead, in which he served as frontman. Taking the aggressive energy and songwriting experience from those years and fusing it with an acoustic everyman persona, Turner has built up an enviable fanbase as a solo artist since 2005, touring increasingly large venues up and down the country. Turner’s awareness of the sizeable following he now commands informs much of the songwriting displayed here; by now, he can be sure that when he takes a record out on the road, he will not be the only one singing.
England Keep My Bones has been described by its creator as being about mortality and Englishness, and if that wasn’t clear enough from the title—drawn very deliberately from Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John—then it is abundantly apparent from the songs themselves, which are infused with a kind of curious fervour for an imagined, fantasy England. While all this is exciting enough for those who live in one of the many English towns, cities and regions Turner lovingly name-checks, it could border on annoyingly parochial for the vast majority of people who do not. Considering that Turner is admired for breaking down barriers between himself and his fans, this pervasive quasi-nationalism seems like an odd approach; it carries with it as much potential to be exclusive as it does to sweep people up.
Turner’s songwriting abilities are undimmed, however, even if his efforts tend to work best when they are separated from his pursuit of an Albion regained. “Peggy Sang the Blues”, for example, overcomes its somewhat clichéd sentiment that “better times are coming” by wrapping itself up in piano and a choir to achieve something bordering on the transcendental. “I Am Disappeared” is almost as effective, unfolded expertly to a climax over the best part of five minutes before it fades slowly away.
As the album’s themes of redemptive mortality and Englishness play out, however, there is one song which which seems ill at ease with both. The raging rocker “One Foot Before the Other” is essentially a narcissist’s last will and testament set to music; the character Turner portrays can barely conceal his glee at the thought of being cremated, poured as ash into “London’s drinking reservoirs” and consumed by the city’s seven million inhabitants as a means of becoming part of them on an atomic level. While the song is enjoyable on its own terms—closer to a Million Dead outing than anything else here—it makes a jarring musical and thematic break with the rest of the record, and is left sounding more than a little out of place.
A few lyrical oddities are unlikely to be enough to displease the legions of fans who, for good reason, have got onboard with Turner’s earnest and powerful music. His impassioned vocals are as engaging here as ever, and his band, newly christened the Sleeping Souls after a line in “I Am Disappeared”, are on fine form, bringing myriad guitars, drums, organs, and even a mandolin into the mix. England Keep My Bones is evidence enough that the Frank Turner train is still picking up speed, but how far it travels from here depends on how much the man at the controls wants to stick to themes which, for all their epic sweep, just aren’t for everybody.